‘I’ll steal from you Mr Robinson’: pilfering in the Victorian department store

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Edith Oliver’s appearance at Marlborough Street Police court in May 1876 gives us a glimpse back at the beginnings of the department store in London. Edith was accused of stealing ‘a bonnet shape’ from her employer and when her lodgings were searched several other items were found, including ‘lace, silk, and velvet materials used in the workroom’ on Oxford Street.

The bonnet pattern had been discovered concealed under Edith’s clothes so she must been the subject on suspicion, perhaps based on information from another employee. The firm employed 500 workers and there were notices posted up all over the building warning the staff of the consequences of taking home things that belonged to the company without permission.

Wages for workers in the clothing trades in the late 1800s weren’t large and Edith (like many others) was probably keen to supplement them by doing private work or making and repairing clothes for her family. There was nothing new in this of course, workers had been taking home offcuts as ‘perks’ (perquisites) of the job for centuries. It was in the previous century that the owners of businesses had started to clamp down in such pilferage, and parliament had obliged by passing hundreds of laws to prohibit thefts from the workplace with the threat of capital punishment for those that persisted.

By 1876 Edith wasn’t going to face such a severe penalty but if convicted she would almost certainly lose her liberty, and her job. Mr Addrett, the works manager, said that they were vulnerable to pilfering an so it was necessary to make an example of her. William Franklin, a timekeeper at the firm, testified that Edith had told him she was setting herself up in business privately and that the goods found at her home belonged to her and weren’t stolen.

Mr Newton, the sitting magistrate, found Edith quietly and sentenced her to 14 days hard labour. She would also lose her job but he didn’t think that would affect her too much, and fully believed she would find work again afterwards somewhere else. He hinted that there should be a tighter control of such staff and that character references should be taken as they were for domestics. Otherwise someone like Edith might walk into employment and start pilfering all over again.

Now we routinely take references which often ask questions about the prospective employee’s honesty and suitability. Edith would have found it hard to get similar work without the Mr Addrett’s recommendation  but I’m sure if she was a talented seamstress she would have had no problem getting piece work away from the bright lights of Oxford Street and over in the East End.

Which brings me to reveal where Edith worked. She was employed by Mr Peter Robinson, silk mercer, on Oxford Circus. Robinson had run a business in the West End from the 1830s and opened his department store on Oxford Street in 1850. By 1876 he was dead and since he had no male children the store must have been run by someone else. It wasn’t run by his younger assistant, John Lewis, because he turned down the opportunity to go into business with his mentor, opting instead to open his own shop in 1864. I wonder how he got on?

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 26, 1876]

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