I have a dictionary of underworld slang on my shelves. It is a fascinating compendium of words associated with crime, criminals and punishment. There are dozens of words for policeman for example, very few of them nice ones! Much of it is thieves ‘cant’; slant – such as cockney rhyming slang – used to conceal meaning and confound attempts at arrest or prosecution. So we get slang words or phrases for certain sorts of offences, many of them to do with different kinds of theft.
One of these is ‘going snowing’. Nothing to do with the inclement weather we are currently experiencing but instead a reference to stealing clothes or linen from washing lines.
Ruth Williams and Catherine Conway usually earned their living by selling (or ‘hawking’) lace on the streets. I rather suspect that they weren’t always absolutely honest in revealing the sources of the materials they sold on, and in December 1849 a sharp-eyed young girl landed them in court.
Williams and Conway entered the garden of house in Chelsea and knocked on the door, offering to sell some of their lace. As Williams discussed her goods with the woman at the door Conway stayed close to a line of washing drying nearby. When she was quite sure she wasn’t being watched she must have snatched a few items from the line and concealed them about her person. The pair then made off, no doubt to try the scam elsewhere.
However, this time they had been observed. The house belonged to the Walbedge family and their 11 year-old daughter had been carefully watching the two strangers from the moment they arrived. As soon as they left through the gates the girl ran to tell her mother that she thought she’d seen them steal some linen.
Mrs Walbedge quickly despatched the child to follow the women at a distance, to see where they went. Meanwhile she checked, and discovered that they had indeed been robbed. The little girl stuck to her task and followed the thieves for ‘some considerable distance’ before she met a policeman, ‘quietly’ told him what she’d seen and had the pair arrested.
Back at the police station the women were searched and the missing linen found on them. When they appeared at Westminster Police Court they were committed for trial on the child’s evidence. Shaw Taylor would be have been proud – ‘keep ’em peeled’ as he used to say on Junior Police Five.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 14, 1849]
The pair don’t seem to have made it to the Old Bailey on this occasion but just two years later a Catherine Conway was acquitted of a very similar theft (of a shirt that was wet, suggesting it had come from a line), in a location not that far from this one.