‘It was an impulsive theft, and I beg for mercy’: the sad fall of an unemployed clerk

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Robert Stevens been out of work for some time when he entered a baker’s shop in Mile End in May 1859. Stevens had previously earned a living as a clerk, a gateway situation for someone hoping to move up the social ranks from the working to the middle classes.

The nineteenth century saw the establishment of the middling classes as the solid centre of Victorian life with their values of hard work, education, thrift, and family life. The social climbing of members of the middle classes were gently mocked in the 1892 novel The Diary of a Nobody where the character of Mr Pooter struggles to be taken seriously by superiors, friends and tradesmen alike.

In an unfortunate coincidence another clerk was in Mr Bradbrook’s  bakery that day and he was collecting money on behalf a firm of coal merchants. The baker had opened his till and placed four gold sovereigns on the counter just as Stevens approached to buy some bread. As the collections clerk and the shopkeeper discussed the account Stevens dashed in and swept the money from the counter and ran out of the shop.

The baker and John Griffiths (the clerk) recovered from their initial shock and rushed off after him, catching him up a few streets away. He had one coin on him having lost the others in his haste, these were picked up by Griffiths  in the chase. The unfortunate young man was handed over to the police and brought before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court to be dealt with by the law.

Robert Stevens pleaded guilty and apologized for his crime. ‘I went into the shop to buy’, he told Mr Hammill, ‘but but catching sight of the gold lying close to my hand, was seized with an irresistible desire of appropriating it to my own service, and unfortunately did so.

It was, I assure you, an impulsive theft, and I beg for mercy, having long been out of employment as a clerk’.

John Griffiths spoke up for the prisoner and urged the justice to show mercy and be lenient. As a fellow clerk he perhaps understood better than most how easy it was to lose a ‘respectable’ position whether because of the precarious state of the economy or the capricious  nature of employers.

It did little or no good however, Mr Hammill ignored the request for compassion and sent Stevens to prison for four months at hard labour. Having served a sentence in a mid nineteenth-century goal I doubt that Robert would have found white-collar work easy to come by afterwards. He was dogged by a criminal record, albeit one of his own making, and the stain of the prison would be on him. Hopefully he recovered and found a new path but this is another example of how a lack of real support for those that find themselves unemployed can have catastrophic and life changing consequences.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, May 23, 1859]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

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