A fishy tale of dishonesty or an act of love?

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Fish Street Hill in the City

Parliamentary legislation in 1848 (collectively known as the Jervis Acts) and the 1850s had allowed for the fast processing of prisoners who had been arrested for relatively minor acts of property crime. Mostly these acts were aimed at the treatment of juvenile offenders and those accused of simple theft of small amounts or low value items.

So it is a little surprising to see the act being cited in the case of Mary Ann Gill, who was brought before the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House in May 1860.

Surprising because Mary was charged with stealing the not insignificant sum of eight sovereigns from her master. For context, £8 in 1860 equates to about £500 today. Then it would have been the equivalent of 40 days labour for a skilled tradesman, and worth much more to a shop girl like Mary. Mary could quite easily have ended up before a jury for this crime but, because she eventually pleaded guilty, she avoided that, perhaps hoping for a more lenient sentence.

The circumstances were fairly straightforward: Mr Rouse, a fish salesman, employed Mary at his premises on the appropriately named Fish Street Hill (close to the Monument which marks the outbreak of the 1666 fire). At some point in February 1860 Rouse suspected that Mary might have been responsible for stealing money missing from a bag he kept in a cupboard. She denied it however, and he had no proof.

Then, some months later he discovered a watch in her possession and demanded to know where it came from. She told him she’d bought and (presumably because he didn’t pay her enough to be able to afford such luxuries) he realized she’d used the money he’d lost to pay for it. Having grilled her closely he brought her before the Lord Mayor to be dealt with by law.

Under the pressure of the courtroom Mary confessed. She had stolen the sovereigns and used close to £5 to buy a gold watch. What had she done with the remainder she was asked? The rest she had spent on a ‘young man with who she rode about in a cab when she had a holiday’, she explained. Perhaps the gold timepiece was for him as well, a gift to seal their love, or maybe he’d induced her to steal in the first place?

I prefer the more romantic explanation.

Mary’s life now began to unravel quickly however. It was revealed that she had been dismissed on no fewer than two previous occasions for ‘dishonesty’, a precarious situation for anyone seeking work, even in a vast metropolis like London. Moreover, she had secured the job with Mr Rouse by providing him with a ‘specious, but utterly false statement, as to the reason for her being unable to produce a character.

The magistrate – the Lord Mayor – sent her to prison for six months. In the circumstances this was not that lenient an outcome; had she braved an Old Bailey jury she may even have got off scot-free; unlikely but not impossible. There are only a handful of cases of servants stealing from their masters in 1860 which suggest either that many preferred the summary option or that cases simply didn’t make it that far very often.

Of course, she wasn’t to know that.

[from Morning Chronicle, Saturday 12 May 1860]

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