‘When ladies go a thieving’: shoplifting in Westbourne Park

For a few years in the mid 1980s I lived in Westbourne Park and  I remember Whiteley’s department store on Queensway. The building was the second location for William Whiteley’s retail outlet and opened in 1907. But Whiteley’s  original shop opened its doors in 1863 on Westbourne Grove as the capital’s very first department store.

The store – which had a row of 17 shops – was described as “an immense symposium of the arts and industries of the nation and of the world” and was seriously damaged by fire in 1887.

The idea of department stores – catering for all sorts of consumer needs and desires – had been imported from the USA, but took off in London. The fashion for shopping had begun in the previous century as the growing middle-classes were keen to show off their new found wealth with luxury goods imported form all corners of the expanding British Empire; arguably this reached its zenith towards the end of the 19th century.

Whiteley’s had lots of customers then, but it also had those that either saw it as an opportunity for illegal appropriation or simply could not resist the temptations it presented. As well as ‘conspicuous consumption’ the growth of a retail trade brought with it an associated rise in shoplifting.

In the later 1800s the growing number of ‘respectable’ women being charged or accused of shoplifting led contemporaries to view this as a weakness particularly affecting women of a certain age and class. The term ‘kleptomania’ (an compulsion to steal, without the necessity to do so) fitted a Victorian view of women as the ‘weaker sex’, both physically and mentally.

Emily Beardon, a 46 year-old ‘well dressed’ lady was brought before the police magistrate at Marylebone Police Court on 10 March 1894 charged with theft from Whiteley’s. According to Mr Bushell (the assistant manager) Beardon was in the store between 12 and 1 on and was ‘behaving suspiciously’.

Staff watched her and she was seen to ‘adroitly put a box of [Camembert] cheese up the sleeve of the large cloak she was wearing’. She visited several other departments and made some small purchases before leaving. Bushell followed her and stopped her in the street, asking her to return to his office.

Although she tried to jettison the cheese she was later searched and several other unpaid for items were discovered. The police were called and although she tried to explain herself she was charged and taken to court. At Marylebone she was convicted of stealing ‘a box of Camembert cheese, a glass of potted meat, and a bottle of Bovril’ collectively valued at 4s. This was despite having a sovereign coin and several shilling in her purse.

No man appeared to say he was her husband and despite her well dressed appearance she may have been a ‘common thief’ not a ‘lady shoplifter’. She was fined £5 however, which if she was a menber of the middle classes she would have had no problem paying; the alternative was a month in gaol.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, March 10, 1894]

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