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Den of Thieves

The title of this piece wasn’t hard to come up with, however I wasn’t sure what the source was. It actually comes from the Bible. Well in this, the Den of Thieves is known as a Patter-Free Lumber.

There were many of these dotted around London, one of them was located at 23 New Boswell Court within the Clare Market rookery or slum, which is now buried under the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. Clare Market was a warren of dark dingy alleys and courts full to bursting with people living in or close to poverty. The alleyways were lined with ramshackle building some as tall as five stories high and mixed with these were shops and many taverns.

The Black Horse was probably the most disreputable and was situated in New Boswell Court. Not surprisingly petty crime was rife as a means of survival and the Black Horse seems to have been the epicenter of the local criminal fraternity. The basement of the tavern was a type of members club, known as a Patter Free Lumber.

The club was a self regulating set up, with membership by invitation only. The criteria for joining was that you had to be a working criminal. A weekly fee was levied on all members and was held in a strongbox in the cellar, somewhat surprisingly there were never any reported incidences of any of the members trying to help themselves. Should you have been unlucky enough to have been apprehended by the authorities whilst engaging in your criminal activities you could send word back to the Black Horse and the Treasurer would use money from the coffers to engage a defence lawyer.

The meaning of the term is hard to quantify in the way it was used two hundred years ago. “Patter” is a slang term roughly relating to talking flash or trying to con someone with clever talk, so I suppose it related to not trying to dupe any of the fellow members. “Lumber” is a bit more difficult to equate to the setting. Traditionally the term as I understand it means to get into trouble or bother, however it is sometimes used in a term for a Pawnbroker or the act of pawning an item. So, perhaps the term means a place to bring goods (probably stolen) to receive money for, no questions asked.

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