Tears in the dock as a young pickpocket tries to win hearts and minds

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What is the purpose of pockets? Today it seems that they have become a semi-practical part of fashion, not always that useful and sometimes there just for show. In the eighteenth century ‘pocket picking’ was made a capital offences, which suggests that it had become a serious problem. The actual law refers to ‘stealing privately from the person’ – in other words stealing without the victim being aware of it.

It was also one of the earliest forms of theft to be removed from the threat of hanging, along with shoplifting. Both forms of larceny were often committed by women and children and so prosecutors were less inclined to bring a charge and juries reluctant to convict when they knew that it might result in an execution. Today it is unlikely that someone would be sent to prison for picking pockets unless they were a serial offender for whom alternative measures had been tried and had failed.

But let’s return to the pocket.  In the 1600s women used pockets as they might use handbags today. They were usually concealed under their dresses or petticoats, so not as decorative fashion accessories. Men also had pockets and these were sewn into the linings of their clothes, again with the intention that they were not visible.

This meant they were a good place to keep valuables (money, jewelry, papers etc.) It also meant they were targeted by thieves. Pockets would have been of no use if a woman had to take off her outer garments to access her pockets so openings in the outer ware enabled her to reach her concealed pockets. It was through these ‘hidden’ opening that pickpockets were able to strike.

Of course that took skill and an ability to get close to the person for long enough to ‘dip’ their pockets, either removing items or cutting the strings that attached it to your clothes. Women and children were especially good that this because the possessed the manual dexterity to secretly invade another’s clothing and were not seen as of much of a threat when close to you in a crowd.

Pockets went out of fashion for ‘ladies of quality’ in the 1790s, being gradually replaced by the handbag, but remained part of working class clothing and male fashion. I was interested by the following short report of a pickpocketing case from 1859 because the nature of pockets is specifically referred to.

William Burke was brought before Mr Corrie at Clerkenwell Police court accused of picking a man’s pocket. The victim said that he had been walking along the Goswell Road when he felt a tug at his pocket. Looking down he saw Burke – with his handkerchief in his hand – making his escape. The prosecutor rushed after him and caught him up, handing him over to a policeman.

The court was told that several victims had lost handkerchiefs to pick pockets in the area recently and the victim stated that as a result he had started to ask his tailor to make his pockets inside his coat.  Mr Corrie didn’t think that would stop the thieves: he had been having pockets made inside for a while but ‘but still he had his handkerchief taken from his pocket’.

William Burke began to cry – he was only 10 years old after all – but the magistrate (and reporter it seems) dismissed this as a act; an attempt to gain sympathy and ward off a more severe punishment.

Did it work? Well Mr Corrie sentenced the lad to 3 months in the house of correction with hard labour. That seems pretty harsh for a 10 year-old found guilty of stealing a hankie but young William took it well, smiling at the magistrate as he sentenced him.  Perhaps he feared worse.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, August 9, 1859]

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