JANE SCOTT looks at the life and many crimes of infamous shoplifter Shirley Pitts, the Queen of Thieves

THE thing you really needed for successful shoplifting in the 1960s was a huge pair of bloomers under the rest of your clothes. Once you'd taken the mink coat off the racks you'd swiftly roll it up, hitch up your skirt and stuff it down your knickers, hanger and all (nothing gives the game away quicker than an empty hanger on the clothes rail).

With a bit of judicious shoving you could get three or four furs down there, tucked away under your nicely flared coat, and away you'd go, past the store walker, past the girlfriend you'd gone hoisting with, out the doors to the car, which your driver had parked nearby. You'd load up the car and go in again, doing Harvey Nichols this time or Selfridges and after a hard day's work you'd go to the clubs, meeting up with all the businessmen and actresses and peers who would happily pay half price for a mink stolen by Shirley Pitts, the Queen of Thieves.

When she died in 1992 she was followed to her grave by a cortege of 21 black Daimlers containing the cream of Britain's underworld. Her importance in that world (far outstripping the influence of a woman who merely shoplifted to make a living, although we will probably never fully know what else she got up to) is neatly illustrated by the time the Krays came to visit.

Pitts's man Chrissie, father of five of her children, was beating her regularly and one day ``he put a bone right through my nose, and he even broke some of my teeth''.

Reggie and Ronnie got out of the limo, hopped over the low wall outside the flat and went in to have a word with Chrissie, while Pitts put the tea on. They didn't lay a finger on him, but he never raised a fist to Pitts again, even when she started laying into him. Pitts always gave as good as she got.

You could have a field day with the psychology of it all, but she started stealing milk and bread in Lambeth at the age of seven to feed her family. Her father, possibly the most inept criminal in South London, had spent the war years of her childhood in and out of prison, her useless mother had burnt all the furniture and sold all her ration books and there were six children to feed.

After an apprenticeship with the Forty Thieves, a gang of South London shoplifters, she went on to spend her teenage years in reform schools and prisons, although she escaped from Aylesbury Prison in time to have her first daughter on the outside and spent a couple of years in hiding before the police took her again. This time she had a broken jaw, a present from the father of her next child, but that didn't stop her from chewing her way through the straitjacket they put her in after spitting at the lesbian doctor who used to drop cigarette ash on her chest when examining her.

Life got better after this. Pitts got cleverer - she never really got caught again - and she hit the sixties with a shoplifting technique which saw her turning over thousands a week.

``We just went mad wherever we went - Scotland, Devon, Manchester - we weren't prejudiced, we would shoplift anywhere,'' she says in Lorraine Gamman's new biography of Pitts, Gone Shopping. Pitts also had a clutch of children of her own, a stable home life at last, and contacts in the criminal world which saw her dining out every night in the clubs and casinos.

``There were so many faces down Adgie's. Bank robbers, forgers, girls that did the kiting as well as the nutty South Africans. Oh God, there was just everyone down there then, and I had such a great laugh with them all. When I think back now, so many of the faces are dead. Either they were shot or died young, which I suppose must tell you something about crime and life.''

Meanwhile, her hopelessly dysfunctional family were in and out of prison after a series of botched bank jobs and dodgy deals - the vast majority of the criminals lurching through life in this book seem extraordinarily thick - until, on one page, her sister Peggy has just been let out, her mother is quietly soaking herself stupid in a flat where she's even sold the mirrors out of their frames and her brother Eddie, in his haste to get back to London on the news that his brother Adgie has just been banged up with his father, gets picked up by the police himself.

``Of course crime pays - it's getting caught that's the f***ing problem!'' says Pitts.

This biography makes illuminating reading and it's not that Pitts's moral code is the inverse of society's (her concern for the welfare and unity of her family would make a Tory conference weep).

She supports, predictably, honour among thieves, with an absolute ban on informing, and is saved from any trickier dilemmas by ostensibly having nothing to do with crimes of violence (she spends the book lamenting the demise of friends like Charlie Wilson, shot in Spain in 1987, ``he was such a nice family man'', and Georgie Cornell, the man dispatched by the Krays ``it all seemed so pointless'').

This leaves the field open for any crime that will make money, and the more the better, although the great transgression is greed. Perhaps the nastiest incident in the book, in her eyes, is when her renegade brother Billy steals the gold cross from around their dead mother's neck before the priest arrives to say a last prayer.

Although she spent her life in Chanel suits and diamonds (you can't effectively shoplift, set up meat shipping scams and brothels or even drive the getaway car for wages heists without looking the part) money flew through her hands, and she died penniless.

But her children adored her, and she never let them down. Pitts would say that she'd worked hard all her life (and she classed shoplifting as a job) so that her children would never go without; if she died penniless, it was because she gave all her money away.

Pitts's architect son, Chris Hawkins, writes of his mother: ``She was the woman who was always in your corner, who never let you down and who was always absolutely genuine. If you hurt, she would hurt twice as bad, and if it concerned her children and it came to a fist fight, she would throw the first punch.

``Despite the so-called life of crime, I believe that morally there was no one who could touch my mother. Inside, she was as decent as anyone could be.''

n Gone Shopping, by Lorraine Gamman, Signet, #5.99.