Posted by Word Camel on May 03, 2002
I've just found a passage in Peter Ackroyd's London biography (apologies in advance - I just keep finding interesting tidbits)quoting a seventeenth century city recorder who was giving evidence about a raid on Watton's Ale house in Billingsgate. Apparently the inn keeper was running a sort of school for child pick pockets. It really could have come directly from Oliver Twist. "Pockets and purses were hung upon a line with 'hawkes bells' or 'scaring bells' attached to them; if a child could remove a coin or counter without setting off the bell 'he was adjudged a judicaill Nypper'".
So I'm guessing this is the origin of calling children "little nippers".