The temptations faced by servant girls working in the homes of the wealthy must have been very hard to resist. For a young woman like Ellen Shean her mistress’ home, with its fine furnishings, ornaments, silver plate and glass, and other comforts would have been a world away from her own humble beginnings. Even more stark was the contrast between Ellen’s personal belongings (such as they were) and those of her employer, Mrs Elizabeth Bailey.
When Ellen began her service, in mid September 1862, she arrived with just a couple of changes of clothes and a few personal effects – she had no money at all. By contrast Mrs Bailey lived in relative luxury, at 13 Sutherland Place, in fashionable Westbourne Grove.
It wasn’t long before Mrs Bailey began to notice that money was going missing. Servants weren’t paid weekly or even monthly in the 1800s, they had an annual salary (of around £10-£20) which was paid out quarterly. Wages were low but of course their bed and board was included, as was a uniform, so what money they had was supposed to be for ‘treats’ (the odd day out) and to save for their future.
London of course, was a very tempting place with all sorts of sights and delights to turn the head of a young woman. Many domestics migrated to the capital looking for work so while Ellen may have been a local girl it is entirely possible she had traveled from as far away as Ireland. Shean is a surname with a variety of roots, from Ireland (as a shortened version of Sheenan) to Surrey and Staffordshire. Sheens are also found in the census in south Wales and across the Bristol Channel.
As Ellen was a new servant Mrs Bailey soon began to suspect that she might be the source of her missing money and so she decided to set a trap for her employee. She marked a florin (a coin valued at 1/10 of a pound) and left in in one of her dresses. Some time after Ellen had finished her rounds upstairs Mrs Bailey decided to investigate whether she had taken the bait.
Sure enough, the coin was missing and Elizabeth confronted her servant with the theft. At first Ellen denied it but soon broke down when Mrs Bailey threatened to involve the police. Ellen threw the coin onto the carpet in front of her and then reached into her pocket and took out a purse. Inside was a significants amount of money in coin (£1 8s) and Mrs Bailey’s wedding ring.
Ellen admitted her crime and the next day both women appeared before Mr Dayman, the Police Magistrate at Hammersmith. Questioned in court Ellen burst into tears and could say nothing in her defence. She must have known that she was effectively ruined; no one would be likely to employ her again as a servant in a respectable household and with a criminal record and no references her future looked very bleak indeed.
It was a serious offence which merited a jury trial and possibly a long prison sentence but Mrs Bailey (perhaps wishing to avoid further embarrassment to herself as well) requested that the justice deal with her servant summarily. She told he she ‘did not want to press the case severely’ and Mr Dayman agreed. However, he said ‘it was a very bad case, as servants must be trusted. There was no excuse for the prisoner to rob her mistress, as she had a comfortable house’.
He sent Ellen Sheen to prison for two months, with hard labour.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 31, 1862]