The Rise Of The Cat Burglar
BBC Earth|November - December 2020
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
Eloise Moss
“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.

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 also charged with bigamy. 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.

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 from 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 fret ted that these ‘feline’ criminals would soon become the norm. 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.

It’s hardly surprising that the cat burglar gave the public sleepless nights. Until the Theft Act 1968, a burglary was lawfully defined as a crime that took place during the “night-time” hours that spanned 9 PM to 6 AM, 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.

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