John Lewis’ Oxford Street store, c.1885
Given the proliferation of shops in the capital it is not surprising that shoplifting was much more of a problem here than in most other towns in England. London was the shopping capital of northern Europe in the late 1800s and the concept of large department stores had been imported from America.
Shoplifting had always been associated with female offering. That’s not to say than men and boys didn’t do it, they did of course, but this was a crime which was more evenly distributed by gender. Robbery and burglary were crimes which were overwhelmingly committed by males, picking pockets and stealing from shops were much more likely to be undertaken by women and girls.
In the second half of the 1800s the idea that some women (generally ‘respectable’ women) might steal because of a weakness, a compulsion to thieve, gained ground. Kleptomania was coined and became a way of explaining the theft of items (often small luxuries) by women who could easily afford to pay for them.
Of course this dent make it any less annoying for the poor shopkeeper. Nor did necessarily excuse such behaviour. In July 1888, just before the Whitechapel murderer began his atrocities in the East End, a ‘respectably connected’ woman was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street caused of stealing from Messers. Lewis in Oxford Street.
Ellen Harris (or possibly Ellen Barker as the court reporter noted she had an alias – often a sign of previous criminal connections) – was charged with stealing a black silk jersey from the store (the forerunner of the John Lewis Partnership we all know today). Ellen had ben in the shop on the Monday in the mantle department and had bought and paid for some items. An assistant the saw her select the jersey and hide it under her waterproof jacket and walk away.
The assistant told the store manager (Walter Cryer) and he followed her. Ellen left the store and started to stroll down Oxford Street. In the classic mode of a store detective Cryer tapped her on the shoulder and asked if she would accompany him back to the shop. Once inside and at the foot of the first staircase Cryer challenged her with the fact that she’d taken the jersey without paying for it.
Ellen denied it and started back up the stair. She stopped halfway, putting her hand inside her jacket and asked him:
‘If I give it to you now, will that do?’
It would not, Mr Cyrer replied and said he’d already summoned a detective to investigate. When he failed to show up Cryer went and found a policeman on the street and handed the woman over. She pleaded with them not to take her in saying she was ‘respectably connected’. In court her solicitor suggested that it was a mistake, that Ellen was ‘absent minded’ and ‘vacant’ when stopped by the store manger. He was trying to paint a picture of a woman who was not entirely in her right mind, one suffering from a compulsion she could not control.
The constable that took her into custody rather supported this interpretation but the store manager disagreed. In the end Mr Hannay, the police court magistrate, denied he could not deal with the case and remanded her with a view to sending her for trial. At the last moment another witness appeared; the manager of another large store, Gask and Gask’s. He identified a number of handkerchiefs that the police had found in Ellen’s possession as the property of his shop. Things didn’t look good for Ellen.
In the end Ellen was prosecuted at the Middlesex Sessions and convicted of theft from John Lewis and Gask’s. She was 40 years of age and described simply as ‘married’. The judge didn’t send her prison so perhaps he thought there was grounds for accepting a plea that she was ‘distracted’ in some way. The court took sureties as to her future behaviour, and perhaps these were guaranteed by her husband or wider family. If she’d been younger, or unmarried, or working class, I doubt she’d have got off so lightly.
[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 11, 1888]