The rise of the cat burglar 

They scaled walls, climbed through lofty windows and preyed on the grandest mansions in the land. Eloise Moss introduces the high-climbing criminals who stole Britons’ jewellery – and sometimes their hearts – in the 1920s and 30s

Cat burglars scaled walls and climbed through lofty windows. (Illustration by Rachel Dickens for BBC History Magazine)

“Cat burglar who holds women fascinated!” On 20 December 1934, this headline announced to readers of the Daily Mirror that one Robert Delaney had been sent to prison for burglary and a string of other crimes.

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For centuries, newspapers had filled their pages with tales of opportunistic thieves preying ruthlessly on unsuspecting victims. But Delaney was somehow different. Gone was the contempt with which reporters often treated the perpetrators. It was replaced by intrigue, even admiration.

Delaney’s multiple escapades, clambering up the edifices of several wealthy Mayfair mansions to purloin jewellery from the bedrooms of the nobility, had earned him the moniker, the ‘king of cat burglars’. The News of the World positively swooned in its depiction of “an auburn-haired, debonair young fellow, who has given Scotland Yard more to think about than any dozen ordinary criminals”.

Now, stoking the press’s fascination further still, Delaney was charged with bigamy as well. It was alleged that he had married two women and “squandered” the £27,000 fortune of one of his wives, who he apparently left destitute.

“You are a menace to society,” Delaney was told as he was sentenced to nine years’ penal servitude (his third spell in prison). The judge was right: Delaney was a menace. But that didn’t stop the public lapping up every last detail of his crime spree.

Sex, stolen goods and the ability to scale walls: these were the hallmarks of the cat burglar. Newspapers first coined the phrase ‘cat burglar’ in 1907 to describe someone with a particular “skill in climbing”. But it was in the 1920s and 30s – during periods of economic depression – that Delaney and his ilk rose to notoriety.

The key to the cat burglars’ fame was the fact that they practised a more ‘daring’ form of burglary than had ever been undertaken before. No wall was too high, no rooftop too lofty to prevent them reaching their quarry. They vaulted fences, traversed chimneys and climbed through windows into bedrooms – and onto the front pages.

Britons were captivated by their exploits. Yet this captivation was also tempered by fear. Police, politicians and security companies fretted that these ‘feline’ criminals would soon become the norm. In fact, such was their impact on the authorities’ imaginations that, by the time the cat burglar scare had subsided in the years before the Second World War (when there were greater job opportunities as the economy shifted towards a wartime footing), it had changed the law of the land.

Sex, stolen goods and the ability to scale walls: these were the hallmarks of the cat burglar

It’s hardly surprising that the cat burglar gave the public sleepless nights. Until the Theft Act 1968, burglary was defined in law as a crime that took place during the “nighttime” hours that spanned 9pm to 6am, involving a break-in to (or out of) a residential property. In other words, the victims were often fast asleep, blissfully unaware of the thief in their midst.

Cat burglars added another layer of menace to these sinister criteria. They might slip into a house after climbing to an upstairs window or crossing over a rooftop – all suggesting a certain level of athleticism and planning as well as unusual confidence in moving around in the dark. “I pass by your window!” declared Mark Benney, self-proclaimed perpetrator of more than 100 such burglaries. In a series of newspaper articles from 1937 describing his crimes, Benney also detailed a particularly creepy fetish for stealing “the gossamer silk underwear” of women as they lay sleeping.

Yet for all the furore that surrounded cat burglars over the following decades, they accounted for a tiny proportion of all thefts committed in Britain during the 1920s and 30s. Court records and the annual crime reports for this era show that most burglaries were opportunistic, and committed by people living in extreme poverty. They usually amounted to the theft of food, clothes, or small sums of money, snatched from ground-floor rooms in equally poor households.

Snubbing Conan Doyle

The cat burglar scare was not the first time that this kind of offender had fascinated the British public. “Why should I work when I could steal? Why settle down to some humdrum uncongenial billet, when excitement, romance, danger, and a decent living were all going begging together?” So declared the ‘gentleman thief’ Arthur J Raffles in The Ides of March, a fictional short story from 1898. Written by Ernest William Hornung, the brother-in-law of Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Raffles was a gleeful criminal mastermind whose burglaries were rarely ever traced. (That the crimes went unpunished was seen as a direct snub to Conan Doyle, who wrote sternly of Hornung’s burglar that “You must not make the criminal a hero”.)

Confirming Conan Doyle’s misgivings, the Raffles tales were a phenomenal commercial success, spawning three short story collections and a novel, as well as numerous theatre and film adaptations.

Part of the public’s fascination with Raffles appears to have stemmed from his preferred choice of victim. Hornung’s rogue often targeted the mansions of wealthy aristocrats, as would the real-life cat burglars who went on to steal jewels from the homes of the great and good.

The fact that the cat burglar crimewave coincided with a period of great economic hardship was not lost on observers. If the cat burglar gained a kind of folk-hero status in the 1920s and 30s, it was possibly with the help of the sentiment that crime was one of the only ways to breach the growing chasm between rich and poor.

This image from 1924 shows a man demonstrating how cat burglars plied their trade.
This image from 1924 shows a man demonstrating how cat burglars plied their trade. With this new breed of criminal climbing drainpipes and roaming rooftops, politicians wondered if any home was safe. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Convicted felon George Smithson (or “Raffles in Real Life”, as he dubbed himself in his autobiography of 1930) was one of those to use this idea to garner public sympathy for their own misdeeds. Smithson described how, having climbed into the country mansion of Lady Helen Salt through “the servants’ parlour window on the second floor”, he “crawled inside, panting, breathlessly waiting to see if any lights appeared or if anybody knew I was there”. Though frightened, he recalled his determination that, “given a stroke of luck, there were coronets, tiaras and a multitude of heirlooms and family jewels, as can be found only in the mansions of the old and established families of our land” to steal.

Smithson was casting himself (much like Raffles) as an intrepid redistributor of unearned riches rather than a villain. The chief of the Criminal Records Office – who described Smithson as “a persistent and troublesome burglar” – clearly didn’t agree.

Profiting from crime

Cat burglars like Smithson may have proved a nightmare for wealthy home-owners, but for some entrepreneurs, they represented a business opportunity. Seeking to profit from the heightened interest in domestic security among the middle and upper-classes, designers of new “cat-burglar-proof window catches” rushed to exhibit their wares at the Ideal Home Exhibition of 1925 and International Exhibition of Inventions in 1926, both held in London.

Also in 1926, the press reported that the architect George Grey Wornum was designing a house with internal drainpipes, with the aim of thwarting cat burglars’ ascent to first-floor windows. In 1924, the Daily Express had satirised the new craze for security with their illustration of the ‘Cat Burglar Proof House’, on which cannons, spikes, alarms, a sleeping policeman and various kinds of cactus were affixed to impede the burglar – provided they first made it across the moat.

None of these security measures arrived in time to prevent Robert Delaney embarking on his one-man crimewave. Delaney was arrested for the first time in 1925 for breaking and entering the Duke of Rutland’s mansion near Green Park in London, and for a secondary charge of ‘housebreaking’ (the daytime counterpart to burglary, carrying shorter jail sentences) at the home of Lady Northcote, from whom he stole a brooch.

During Delaney’s trial at the Old Bailey, the court recorder allowed curiosity to get the better of him, reportedly asking: “How do these feline fellows do it?” In response, prosecuting counsel Mr Percival Clarke patiently explained: “I am told they climb up the stackpipe, or the waste-pipe which carries the water from the roof or the bathroom, and are on the outside of the house.” Intrigued, the recorder asked: “Is it very difficult?” Betraying a sense of humour, Clarke replied: “I have not tried it myself, but I am told that if you have the proper appliances – rubber gloves, rubber boots and something around your knee, it is not so difficult. At any rate, I think you have one of these persons before you now…”

Reaching the loot

The slippage between condemnation and fascination revealed by this courtroom banter was shared more broadly. Press reports hailed burglars’ “enterprising” climbs, printing pictures of victims’ houses onto which journalists had drawn the paths taken by burglars over walls, rooftops, stackpipes and through windows to reach the loot.

The cat burglar scare persuaded the police that they required 'a younger and more energetic body of constables'

As much as these illustrations gave readers a damning sense of just how vulnerable their houses were to the determined and agile thief, they also created entirely new ways of imagining how one could move across the city. Urban systems of policing and regulation were historically organised around combating street-level crimes. Policemen were supposed to walk their respective beats, keeping an eye out for trouble and noting whether pedestrians and road-users were acting suspiciously. From the 19th century, they were increasingly helped in their efforts by the introduction of street lighting within built-up commercial areas.

By 1933, however, changes in policing methods were afoot, explicitly in response to the threat posed by cat burglars’ extraordinary mobility. Determining that the police required “a younger and more highly trained staff of officers and a more active and energetic body of constables” to be able to chase after these modern criminals, Home Secretary Sir John Gilmour instigated a debate in parliament that led to the Metropolitan Police Act 1933. This decreed that constables were to serve in the Metropolitan Police for a fixed period of service of no more than 10 years. As Major JD Mills, MP for the New Forest, explained, this would ensure that police officers would be “alert mentally and bodily” to the dangers of cat burglars, who he termed “the aristocracy of the profession”.

With cities spawning ever more satellite towns and police hard-pressed to maintain surveillance, the rise of these criminal aristocrats offer us a window onto the anxieties haunting interwar Britain. Might unemployed war veterans turn to crime using skills they’d picked up in the army? Was economic hardship a threat to social cohesion? Above all, the oft-cited question ‘Who’ll bell the cat?’ – asking how such criminals were possibly to be found and stopped – played heavily on the minds of politicians. As for the police, they were increasingly charged with keeping an eye on roofs and bedroom windows rather than monitoring the more traditional burglar operating at ground level.

Eloise Moss is lecturer in modern British history at the University of Manchester. She is the author of Night Raiders: Burglary and the Making of Modern Urban Life in London, 1860–1968 (OUP, 2019)

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This article was first published in the March 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine