Amongst the most common crimes that women were accused of at the summary courts was picking pockets. Female offenders appear in greater numbers (and larger proportions) for these property offences than nearly all others – shopflifting being the obvious other one.
Picking pockets is an indirect, non-violent crime, one that involves dexterity and stealth, rather than strength and bravado. It required the perpetrator to get close to his or her victim and, to some extent at least, to not seem like a threat. Pickpockets chose crowds or tightly packed spaces like omnibuses or train carriages, and victims that were unsuspecting, like drunks in bars.
Female thieves were also often, like Elizabeth Smith, prostitutes who were well connected with the criminal networks they either needed to sell on stolen items or to retreat within to hide when the law was after them. Picking pockets was risky; if you were caught and it could be proved you’d stolen items of value you could be sent to prison. If you had previous convictions that could mean a lengthy sentence.
However, there was also a reasonable chance that you would get away with it, especially if you had an accomplice. It was pretty standard practice for a thief to ‘dip’ a pocket and pass the stolen items on to a nearby assistant who’d make away wit them. When the thief was apprehended a search would reveal nothing at all making it hard to gain a conviction.
Not all pickpockets were subtle however, and not all eschewed violence.
In late October 1860 Elizabeth Smith was brought before the magistrate at Lambeth Police court charged with robbery with violence, a much more serious offence than pickpocketing. By all accounts Smith had been picking pockets in a beer shop in Lambeth, Walker’s on the Marshgate.
Edwin Oliver, a master boot and shoemaker was enjoying a glass of stout after work when he saw Smith trying to separate a drunken man from his possessions. He strode over to the couple and intervened, getting a mouthful of abuse from Elizabeth for his pains.
Some time later he left the shop and was making his way towards hoe when he felt a blow on his head and was knocked to the ground. The blow was accompanied by a woman’s voice (Elizabeth’s he believed) saying:
‘There you ______, take that!’
Oliver passed out and when he was helped up later his head was bloody and his pockets had been rifled. He reckoned he had lost between 15 and 18 shillings in coin.
It took a day but the police picked up Elizabeth and she was remanded while Oliver recovered from his wounds. When she came before the magistrate she said little. The justice established from Oliver that she might have had a male accomplice, perhaps her ‘bully’ (or pimp), and so it may have been him that thumped the shoemaker. Elizabeth was committed for trial by jury.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, October 29, 1860]