Tough on crime…

When Caroline Wright came before the magistrate at Marlborough Street she pleaded poverty and blamed her actions on ‘distress’. This week I have been looking at the causal factors of property offending in the 18th and 19th centuries with my 2nd year undergraduates at Northampton, as a part of wider module on crime and punishment from 1700-1900.

We have explored contemporary attitudes towards theft and the way that prosecutors and jurors were sometimes prepared to understand theft as a reaction to times of dearth and economic hardship. Simply put there is some evidence that juries were less likely to convict when prices were high and wages (or employment) low. They also seem to have practised ‘pious perjury‘; downgrading the value of goods stolen so as to reduce the maximum sentence a convicted person could receive.

I suspect juries were often more likely to show this discretion than magistrates, and for London justices faced with thousands of petty thieves each year I doubt how much sympathy was on offer – especially after 1830 when the death penalty had been removed from all property offences.

Caroline Wright was, by the account given by a policeman at her hearing, a drunk. Sergeant Miles said she ‘was a confirmed gin drinker’, who was ‘frequently drunk’. On this occasion she had helped herself to a piece of velvet plush from outside a shop at 111 Tottenham Court Road.

The velvet had been displayed with other goods, draped over a chair outside the shop (which shows us that practices have changed somewhat – its is unlikely that such a valuable item would be left outside a store today). But Ann Cumley, the shop woman, was watching Caroline. When she saw her grab the velvet and hide it under her shawl she ran out of the shop to stop her.

A short chase ensued before Ann caught up with the thief. As a policeman came to help Caroline dropped the plush at the shop assistant’s feet. In court she told Mr Bingham the magistrate that she was in desperate distress and that was why she stole the cloth. The justice was not convinced: ‘it was a strange thing to talk of distress driving her to commit a theft, it was more likely the gin she had a propensity for’.

Wright was probably hoping to sell the velvet (a useful material for drapes or cushion covers) but we can have no idea what she wanted the money for. Gin is likely but that might well have been a symptom of her poverty and ‘distress’. Like drug addicts today, stealing might well be to feed a habit but that habit might equally have been a product of a deeper personal descent into poverty, mental illness and desperation.

Mr Bingham sent her to prison for three months at hard labour.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, November 19, 1859]

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