Being Flash

I hasten to a speedy disclaimer before DC Comics and others misconstrue my intentions. Barry Allen aka DC’s “The Flash” makes no appearance here, for this is not the flash of superhero speed but the flash of deceptive language and crooked intentions. There is, admittedly, a certain ‘good guys/bad guys’ flavour in my piece but that’s as close as it gets.

As a criminologist, I have always had a great interest in what is called Flash or Cant language. Often it is claimed to be the devious invention of British thieves who could converse in their own secret language and who then exported it across the globe as they travelled and peddled their deviant ways to Australia, American and colonies of past eras. In short, however, it is in fact something very young people do and have always done in order to exclude the adult world.  For example, this very day, youngsters are warning an internet companion with a simple key press ‘9’ that they are being watched by an adult whilst on line or referring to casual sex as ‘smash’ and telling you to ‘sip tea’ in preference to ‘mind your own business.’ Those with thieving or nefarious intentions have merely taken the time and trouble to hone it to perfection in order to exclude their ‘watching adults’ who happen to be members of the policing fraternity.

So ‘skurting’ teens and their ‘squads’ and ‘fams’ I’m ‘thirsty’ to introduce you to a remarkable man called Ralph Leconby Snowden, Superintendent of Police in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England, situated in the stunning countryside of Greta Bridge. I say remarkable because his perseverance and determination produced the most comprehensive account ever written of not only the all the duties expected of the police, magistrates, inn-keepers, and umpteen complexities of form filling requirements –  but opened the door for these very same people to enter the world of flash or cant language

So, from his 1846 publication, ‘Snowden’s Police Officers’ Guide’, let Ralph set you some homework, for if you are to be a successful router of thieves, you’ll have to eavesdrop on their conversations in the local tavern.

Are you sitting comfortably in your corner bench, a pint of Allsops best beer to hand?  Hark, you can just hear the whispered story of one shady type to another in the next booth:


“I pulled down a fan and roll of snow. I starred the glaze and snammed sixteen redge yacks, my jomer stalled. I took them to a swag chovey bloak and got six finnips and a cooter for the yaks. A cross cove who had his regulars lowr, a fly grabbed him. I am afraid he will blow it. He has been lagged for beaker hunting, as a mushroom faker, has been on the steel for snamming a wedge sneezer – so I must hoop it. Tell swag chovey bloak to christen the yaks quick.”

Good ole’ Ralph now provides the rooky with a translation, so do not read on if you want more time to crack the code yourself…..otherwise here it is.


“I stole from a shop door a waistcoat and a web of Irish linen. I broke the corner of a window and got sixteen gold watches. My fancy girl stood close by me and screened me from observation; I took them to a person who buys stolen property, who gave me six five pound notes and a sovereign for the watches. A fellow thief who shared the money with me is taken by a policeman, and I am very much afraid he will turn informer. He has been transported before for stealing poultry; he used to travel about the country mending umbrellas, and has been in prison for stealing a silver snuff-box. As I must run away, tell the person who bought the watches to get the names altered as soon as possible.”

There you go – lesson one for English nineteenth century rooky cops on being in on the flash.

I cannot help thinking that the chances of hearing such a flash confession like that in a pub, clearly enunciated in the Queen’s English rather than mumbled in a deep country accent is pretty remote – but hey ho!  we all have to start somewhere learning a new language –

– ‘La plume de ma tante” I never used it , but never did me any harm. The translation ‘my aunt’s quill’ always warranted a chuckle though!

Now there is so much more of that where that came from and you are welcome to ask me for more if it takes your fancy, but to end I want to quote a wonderful little rhyme that belongs to one Mr. Chidley, who too often gets missed out as the real initiator of the very first Flash Dictionary published in 1830:

“Thro’ every age some master slang assails,

And modern flash the one that now prevails.

Each man, each tongue and pen, some slang

                         has got,

In short, name one that flash and cant has not;

It glares abroad; ‘tis found in every nook;

And now it stares you in this little book.”

(J. Chidley: The Modern Flash Dictionary, London, 1830, price sixpence) © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2009



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2 Responses to Being Flash

  1. Jon Smith says:

    Good to see someone else appreciates Snowden. There’s an extensive feature on him and his remarkable last case in The Archive, newsletter of the Barningham Local History Group. Find it on the group’s website – go to the People From The Past page and browse the contents. An extraordinary man. If you know more about him, please let me know.
    Jon Smith, Barningham LHG email


  2. Hi Jon – I treasure Snowden’s ‘Magistrate’s Assistant’ et. al., (1846 edition) – a remarkable publication – and still have a yearning to visit Greta Bridge – is there any legacy left of the Police Office, Thorpe Grange? Thanks for the link to your history group, I would like to get in touch – I feel there is more to be done with Snowden – the above is merely a light-hearted romp given its blog status but I feel there is some serious historical work to be completed on this man and his work. I certainly intend to revisit him for another project. I’m still embroiled in my ‘Cato Conundrum’ spin-off with Principal Bow Street Runner George Ruthven – I am now wondering if they ever met? You’ve given me the idea of working Ralph into the new one ‘Late Murder in Oxford’ – historical fiction is a wonderful thing – I think George and Ralph would get on well!
    Best wishes


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