In June 2016 the BBC reported that the theft of pet dogs was on the rise. Figures showed that over 100 dogs were being stolen in England and Wales each month, an increase in the past two years of around 22%. The loss of a pet is distressing and the Ministry of Justice told the BBC that this is taken into account by the courts, presumably in sentencing. Like many things of course, there is nothing new in animals being pinched, nor in the close relationship between the British and our pets.
In April 1873 the editor of the Morning Post chose to feature two dog thefts as part of his paper’s coverage of the metropolitan police courts.
At Marlborough Street a young man named Walter Handley, who said he was a poulterer, appeared in court accused of stealing a French poodle. The dog belonged to Captain Randolph Stewart, who had a fashionable address at 85 Eaton Place, Pimlico. The dog was a pedigree and valued at the princely sum of £50 (or over £2,000 today).
The captain told Mr Knight, the sitting magistrate, that the dog had gone missing on the 17 March. He had reported it stolen to the police at Vine Street but 10 days later it had come home on its own. Meanwhile Sir John Sebright, a broker in Bond Street was sold a dog at Leadenhall Market. The man selling it was identified as the prisoner, Handley, who had asked £20 for it. Sir John paid him just £10 and took the dog home with him, giving it into the care of his butler.
That was on the 21st March but in less than a week the animal had escaped and made it way back to its original owner. The captain then visited Sir John to explain that the dog was his and that it had returned home. The mystery of how Captain Stewart came to visit the man that had bought his dog is explained by the actions of the police.
Today it is very unlikely that the police will give over much if any time to investigating the theft of family pets unless it is connected to a more serious case of dog smuggling. In 1873 however a detective was assigned to look for the captain’s missing poodle. Did the fact that this was an expensive pedigree dog belonging to a bona fide ‘gentleman’ influence their actions? Or was it because the theft of digs was often connected to an illegal dog fighting and betting circle that involved more serious forms of criminality?
Detective-sergeant Butcher of C Division investigated the theft and presumably introduced Captain Stewart and Sir John. When the latter explained how he had come by the dog he accompanied him to Leadenhall Market and they found Walter Handley. Sir John told him he had sold him a stolen dog and asked him for his money back. Walter panicked and tried to run off, unsuccessfully.
In court he told Mr Knight that he had bought the dog himself from another man (who, of course, he could not identify). The poor animal had been shaved to make it harder to trace, and when Handley was searched at Vine Street the police had found a piece of liver on him. This was termed ‘pudding’ DS Butcher told the magistrate, and was commonly used to tempt dogs into the clutches of thieves. The detective added that Handley had been seen ‘in the company of dog-stealers, one of who had only just come out of prison after being their for 18 months’. Dogs were often stolen to be used in fights or for rat baiting, he said. This one was not destined for the pits however, its value was as a luxury pet.
Captain Stewart had been determined to prosecute he said, because several of his friends had lost animals to thieves in recent months, and he wanted to stop the trade in stolen dogs. So did the magistrate, he found Handley guilty and sent him to prison for six months at hard labour.
Over at Westminster Police Court another serial offender was produced, but he had a much better outcome than Walter Handley. Charles Burdett was well known to the police and the courts; the court reporter even described him as ‘an old dog stealer’. Burdett, who was from Bethnal Green, was accused of stealing a ‘valuable Russian retriever dog’ from a gentleman in South Kensington.
A few days after the dog disappeared a note was delivered to the owner’s house at 7 Cromwell Road. The missive was opened by the butler on behalf of his employer, Mr Reiss, and he followed the instructions which were to pay £10 for the safe return of the animal. Accordingly the butler went to a pub in Bishopsgate Street, met with Burdett and handed over the money. Burnett vanished almost immediately while the dog just as miraculously appeared.
The police soon caught up with Burdett and he was, like Walter Handley, accused of theft. The court was told he had a string of convictions and had served time in prison. This time, however, the magistrate was uncomfortable with the procedure. He suggested that the previous convictions appeared to be suspect, and he could not proceed against Burdett under the charge that had been laid. He decided to convict him under the Police Act which allowed him to level a fine £20 or 3 months imprisonment. Burnett ‘heartedly thanked his worship’, paid his fine, and ‘left the dock smiling at his lucky escape and rubbing his hands’.
It would seem then, that dog stealing was just as prevalent in the 1800s as it is today and that it was a lucrative industry; so lucrative in fact that a criminal like Burdett could afford to pay the odd hefty fine.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 18, 1873]