Britain’s Bonnie and Clyde

In the 1920s and 30s, the press gloried in tales of bank raids, prison breaks and high-speed getaways perpetrated on both sides of the Atlantic. Alyson Brown reveals how a homegrown pair of celebrity-gangsters thrilled – and scandalised – Middle England...

Illustration by Lynn Hatzius

This article was first published in the Christmas 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

Advertisement

It was a sensational, blood-soaked end to a sensational, blood-soaked story. On 23 May 1934, a posse of lawmen caught up with Clyde Champion Barrow and his lover, Bonnie Parker, on a remote road in rural Louisiana and ended their infamous crime spree in a hail of bullets.

As Bonnie and Clyde breathed their last, one of the greatest media sensations of the 1930s died with them. For the previous two years, the couple’s exploits had proven manna from heaven for newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, which eagerly feasted on the spectacle of this pair of lovers holding up banks, murdering policemen and, when cornered, shooting their way out of trouble.

But not all was lost for scandal-hungry pressmen – not in Britain, at least. For, by the time Bonnie and Clyde met their grisly fates, newspapers had, for some time, been revelling in the exploits of this country’s own version of the notorious American partners in crime.

Mystery woman

“Two men escape from Strangeways Gaol. Wire rope climb to freedom.” So announced the Manchester Evening News on 15 August 1927. When Cockney hardman Ruby Spark burst out of prison with a fellow convict, papers were soon falling over themselves to cover the story. But it was the next part of the Manchester Evening News‘ headline that really grabbed the public’s attention: “Mystery woman in waiting car.”

Ruby Spark had an accomplice operating just outside Strangeways’ walls, primed to spirit him away to freedom in a getaway car. More intriguingly still, she also happened to be his lover. Her name was Lilian Goldstein, and her fashionable bobbed hairdo, speed behind the wheel, and even faster lifestyle would go on to elevate this from a run-of-the-mill tale of car theft and bank robbing to one that spoke to some of Middle England’s greatest fears. Was American culture having a pernicious influence on Britain? Could the motor-car give criminals a critical edge in the battle with the hard-pressed police? And did women’s changing role in the modern world present a serious threat to society?

Immoral earnings

Spark and Goldstein first met in 1920 or 1921 in their home city of London. In a later ghost-written account of his exploits, Spark described Goldstein as his first girlfriend. As for Goldstein, she was already married to a man who had had at least one brush with the law: in the summer of 1920, Henry Goldstein was convicted of living on the immoral earnings of a girl (Lilian) who, it was claimed, was not yet 18 years old.

Spark, too, was well-acquainted with the workings of the criminal justice system. His first conviction was for attempted garage breaking when he was 18 years old. It would be the start of a long and colourful criminal career. Between 1920 and 1949, Spark was convicted at least 11 times for a range of offences including theft, housebreaking and conspiracy to steal motor cars. He spent more than 10 years behind bars.

But it wasn’t so much Spark’s crimes that fascinated the press and public – more his determination to break out of prison, or avoid being caught in the first place. One of his most dramatic attempts to evade justice came in the summer of 1927 when, having carried out a string of break-ins with a gang that included Lilian Goldstein’s brother, he had an unexpected run-in with Southport police.

“On receiving the signal that the [soon to be] prisoners’ car was approaching,” we’re told, “[the chief constable] had the fire engine drawn across the road. When the prisoners saw this barricade, they were in such a hurry to reverse that they knocked down a tree and the car was smashed. Without a word of explanation, the three men leapt out of the car and attempted to escape.” They failed, and Spark was sentenced to three years in prison. He would, however, serve just a few weeks, bursting out of Strangeways in the prison break that made headlines in the Manchester Evening News.

Not all of Spark’s jail breaks would prove so successful. A few years later, he attempted to scale Wandsworth Prison’s walls with a rope. This time, however, a prison officer caught him by the foot and dragged him back. His companion made it over the wall, reportedly helped by a woman “known as the Bobbed Haired Bandit” who sped away in a hire car. That woman was, of course, Lilian Goldstein.

By now, Spark and Goldstein’s exploits were proving ever more irresistible to a national press seduced by this tale of love, crime, audacious escape attempts and fast cars. The 1920s and 30s was a golden age for the criminal-celebrity – fuelled by a highly competitive newspaper market (with the Mail and Express to the fore) and a growing fascination with American gangsters. So when Spark successfully broke out of Dartmoor Prison in 1940 (before spending the next five months holed-up with Goldstein in a flat in Wembley), their reputation as glamorous anti-heroes was sealed.

Soon the tabloids were rushing to run stories supposedly written by the “bobbed-haired bandit” herself and “Ruby Spark, Public Enemy No.1”. “I helped Sparkes escape from a prison! I drove his car in a raid!” ran one headline. “TRIP TO DARTMOOR – To Say Goodbye to the Desperate Man I Loved,” declared another.

Smash and grab

The allure of Spark and Goldstein wasn’t solely based around audacious prison breaks. It also sprang from anxiety – anxiety about a rapidly changing world. Spark later claimed that he invented the smash-and-grab robbery. He didn’t. But, for all that, the couple operated at a time when there was a great deal of concern about the relationship between crime and the motor car. The increasing use of cars in bank raids and jail breaks suggested greater planning, organisation and resources – and presented a new and more threatening kind of criminal, whom police forces were struggling to tackle.

As Spark’s encounter with Southport police proves, he and Goldstein certainly travelled a great deal together. In his own account, Spark explains that during the 1920s he left London for the north of England with Lilian and another accomplice, as it was getting too hot with the police. They went “touring the provinces, blowing safes and screwing [burgling] country houses”. In the mid-1920s they were wanted by police in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

Spark and Goldstein’s exploits seemed to confirm another widespread fear – the growing impact of American culture on the British way of life. The 1920s and 30s saw thousands of Britons cramming into cinemas to watch US crime movies such as The Public Enemy and Scarface, and newspapers enthusiastically documenting the exploits of American gangsters such as Al Capone and John Dillinger. Harmless fun? Not according to Britain’s self-appointed moral guardians, who were quick to draw parallels between Britain’s rapidly changing consumption of culture and the emergence of homegrown ‘gangsters’ mimicking their contemporaries across the Atlantic.

Dark alter ego

But if there was one ingredient that, more than any other, turned Spark and Goldstein’s escapades into a cause célèbre, it was Goldstein’s gender. Many Britons were, no doubt, thrilled by the spectacle of a fashionable young woman sat behind the wheel of a fast car, before putting her foot to the floor and racing away from the scene of the crime. Others, though, found it deeply disturbing, for it signalled that young women in Britain – more specifically, a recent arrival on the social landscape known as the ‘New Woman’ – had taken a wrong turn.

The term ‘New Woman’ first emerged in the late 19th century to describe a new breed of women determined to assert their economic, social and cultural independence. They ploughed new furrows in education, employment and physical activity, and embraced the latest fashions. But they also invited opprobrium – chiefly because they challenged traditional gender roles.

Worse still, the ‘New Woman’ had a dark alter ego: the Bobbed-Haired Bandit. Like the New Woman, the Bobbed-Haired Bandit dressed in the latest fashions and sported modish hair styles (hence the name). But she also drove fast cars, led a fast life and made a living out of breaking the law.

The name first became associated with an American criminal, Celia Cooney, in the mid-1920s. Thanks to her appearance and her lifestyle, it was only a matter of time before Lilian Goldstein was also dubbed the Bobbed-Haired Bandit. The papers described her as “distinctly good looking”, “haughty” and “fashionably dressed”. In a woman like Goldstein, these qualities were considered highly dangerous.

But the danger would soon pass. Ruby Spark’s escape from Dartmoor Prison in 1940 was the high-water mark of the British Bonnie and Clyde’s criminal escapades. Spark was soon returned to prison, where he served another two years. By the time he was released, he and Goldstein had already parted. He was convicted multiple times during the 1940s but got married (not to Lilian) in 1946 and, having been released from a final period of incarceration in June 1949, appears to have gone straight. Little is known of what happened to Goldstein, other than that she renounced her married name in 1944, perhaps to evade public attention.

The relationship and criminal lives of Ruby Spark and Lilian Goldstein may have been less dramatic and intense than their American counterparts, but they had a more enduring relationship. While Bonnie and Clyde were together little more than four years, Ruby and Lilian remained a couple for around 20. And fortunately, unlike their American counterparts, Spark and Goldstein’s story did not end in a volley of bullets.

Advertisement

Alyson Brown is a professor of history at Edge Hill University. She has published widely on prison history and interwar crime.