“On the rooftops of London coo, what a sight!”

Here’s an expression from the past I can bet you cannot work out. It comes from that mix of cockney, Romany and medieval dialects as spoken by 19th century petty criminals in England — you know the ones , the Bill Sikes types with Dick Van Dyke accents who called what they had stolen ‘swag’. Yes, they really did.

It was in use for almost all the 19th century but died in the 20th century, though the crime continues to this day.

This is it: “Flying the blue pigeon”

Have a guess? The answer is below the picture

Flying the blue pigeon could land you in jail

Flying the blue pigeon could land you in jail

A few clues before the drum roll reveal…

‘Kiting’ means cheque fraud so you would be forgiven if you thought that flying the blue pigeon was some kind of white collar crime. Quite the opposite in fact.

It was a crime born out of indoor plumbing, shipworms and the working class hobby of competitive pigeon racing.

Ok, enough already. The crime of flying the blue pigeon was the label among the criminal fraternity for stealing roofing lead. Thieves would clamber up onto the closely connected roofs of Victorian cities, making their way to the chimney stacks where lead was to be found. They peeled it off, rolled it up and made their way back across the roofs to a safe point where they threw it to the ground and climbed back down. Thereafter they would stagger with their booty to marine chandlers who acted as fences for the lead and get paid off. Lead was in great demand at the time as most plumbing used it. Aside from pipes it was manufactured into white lead — chemical residue scraped from thin lead sheets soaked for months in a concoction of vinegar and tanners’ bark. White lead was the principal constituent of white paint. That poisonous paint was especially favoured by the British navy, which had any part of the wooden ships of the fleet covered in the paint above and below the waterline as a worm repellent.

The expression? Seemingly the standard alibi for a lead thief when caught on the roof was words to the effect of “my racing pigeon which I value greatly had decided to roost up here and so I innocently made my way up here to rescue my bird.”

PIgeon fancier or career criminal? You decide

PIgeon fancier with Stan Laurel haircut or career criminal? You decide

This never played well with the local magistrate. One thief quietly conceded his whole pigeon story was a lie with which he intended to deceive the judge — or as the crim quaintly put it with yet more argot: “I was only trying to gammon the beak.”

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2 Responses to “On the rooftops of London coo, what a sight!”

  1. Michael Murray says:

    My ancestor, William Butler, at the age of 16 or 17, was convicted of ‘flying the blue pigeon’ at the Old Bailey in 1784. As a seaman he would have known that lead could fetch a pretty price at the marine chandlers in Holborn because it waa used to make the white paint used on navy vessels. After a couple of months in Newgate Gaol, then a couple of years in a prison hulk on the Thames, he was sent to Australia on the First Fleet in 1788 to serve out the rest of his seven years of his sentence. Of course he never went back. Australia was a land of opportunity for ex-convicts and Butler made his mark as a farmer, then later as a carpenter and shipwright.


  2. ActonBooks says:

    Thanks for that. As a sad aside there has been a resurgence of the crime in recent years. Country churches around here have been stripped almost as frequently as that other rural crime — the art of dragging cash machines from the walls or even the interior of tiny village shops. The latter misdemeanor has yet to gain a name among the felons though.


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