Shoplifting and false imprisonment in 1850s Holborn : the case of the missing sovereign

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Before I entered the heady world of academia I had mostly earned my money working in shops. Indeed, I partly funded my studies at undergraduate and postgraduate level by working for Waterstones’ the booksellers.

So I have a reasonable idea and experience of how the law works around shoplifting and just how careful retail staff have to be if they suspect an individual of stealing from them. You cannot, for example, just grab hold of someone and accuse them of theft; you have to have seen them take an item and be absolutely sure that intend to walk away with without paying. Shop security guards are allowed to ask to see inside a person’s bag but if they refuse then the guards are obliged to call the police to organize a search.

In the mid nineteenth century shopping was a fashionable pastime amongst ladies of the upper and middle classes but the problem of shoplifting was still rife as it had been in the previous century. Shopkeepers were well aware that, as had been the case in the 1700s, female thieves were well known to dress up to resemble wealthier and ‘respectable’ shoppers in order to perpetrate their crimes. In this context the ‘extraordinary conduct’ of one City of London shopkeeper can be much better understood, even if it would have never happened in today’s world.

When a ‘respectably attired’ lady and her sister entered Mr. Meeking’s shop on Holborn Hill she had the intention to buy a dress for a forthcoming occasion. The woman (who was not named in the newspapers, for reasons that will become evident) was obliged to wait for an assistant to serve her as two ladies were already being served. One placed a £5 note on the counter with a sovereign coin on top, the payment for the items she’d chosen. The assistant turned over the note and asked her to endorse it, then walked off to the other side of the shop to fetch the cashier.

However, when a few minutes later the cashier arrived the sovereign was missing. The customer swore she’d put it there and the assistant was just as adamant that he had taken it. Suspicion now fell on anyone who was in the general area, including the two sisters who were waiting to be served.

The lady customer who’s sovereign had disappeared now turned to them and asked them not to leave until the matter had been settled. A policeman was summoned so that the four women could be searched. However, our ‘respectably attired’ shopper refused to be searched by a man and demanded that the female searcher (employed by the police) be brought to the store. The policeman told her that the searcher was currently busy at Smithfield Police Station and she’d have to accompany him there if she wished to be searched by a woman.

Our lady refused to be marched through the streets by a policeman like a common criminal and insisted any search took place there and then in store. There was nothing to do then but wait. Having given her name and address she was then forced to wait for three hours before the store closed and Mr Meeking returned from business elsewhere so that the four women could be taken into a private room where they were stripped of all their clothes (save ‘their shoes and stocking’) by one of Meeking’s female servants.

Nothing was found on any of them.

The woman was so outraged by this invasion of her privacy and by being held against her will for several hours that she applied to Sir Robert Carden at the Guildhall Police Court to complain. She said she had fainted twice during her ordeal and had been quite ill ever since. Indeed, so ill, she said, that it had taken her several weeks to gather the courage and energy to come to court. She was a respectable married woman and the whole episode was a disgrace, which explains why she did not wish her name to appear in the pages of the press.

Sir Robert was sympathetic but otherwise impotent. No crime had been committed in said, but she would certainly have a case for a civil prosecution for false imprisonment should she wish to pursue it. Taking the case further may have risked the lady’s good name being dragged through the civil courts (and newspapers) but perhaps that would be unnecessary now. After all the public airing of her experience would most likely have an adverse affect on Meeking’s business, deterring others from risking a similar one, and this might explain why she chose this path.

That is always the risk for a shopkeeper if they are not absolutely certain that a person is guilty of stealing; make a false accusation and you risk a loss of business and a loss of face. Which is why the odds are always stacked in favour of the shop thief.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, April 16, 1854]

The not-so-perfect employee

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Fleet Street in the 1850s

When Sarah Morgan left Mr Williamson’s employment on 1 February 1869 she did so with such a ringing written endorsement that she soon secured a job at a lawyer’s chambers in Gray’s Inn. Williamson was sorry to see her go as she had been an excellent servant to him and his wife at the Fleet Street premises where he carried on the business of a London hosier, supplying gloves, stockings, and other goods to his City customers. It must have come as something of a shock to him when the police contacted him about her in late March of the same year.

Sarah had started work at the chambers and she was seemingly doing very well, everyone was happy with her and she was living up to the reference the hosier had provided.  It all went wrong for her when, on 23 March a young man was found hiding in her room. The police were called, initially because he was suspected of robbing the place. He was taken away but nothing was found on him to suggest he’d committed a crime. He was later charged at Bow Street but cleared of any wrong doing. This turned the attention back on Sarah.

Mr Saltmarsh, her new employer, asked to search her things and she willing agreed. He went though the two boxes she indicated were hers and he found nothing within that belonged to the Chambers. However he did find two boxes she hadn’t pointed out to him and opened these. Inside was a treasure of hosiery:

’27 pairs of kids gloves, 10 cambric handkerchiefs, and other things’ all belonging to her previous master, Mr Williamson.

In all there were goods valued at over £7 (or around  £450 in today’s money). In court before two aldermen at the Guildhall Sarah claimed these had been given to her by James Oakes, the hosier’s shopman, but he denied it when asked and  when pressed on this Sarah admitted this was a lie. She threw herself on the mercy of the court and asked to be dealt with summarily, under the terms of the Criminal Justice Act (probably the 1855 Administration of Justice Act which allowed magistrates to deal with petty thefts and some other offences if the accused agave their permission to being dealt with – and pleaded guilty to the charge).

The aldermen (Gibbons and Causton) agreed and after a brief consultation sent her to prison for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 25, 1869]

‘He’s a good man, when he’s sober your worship’: Little support for an abused wife at Guildhall

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As many posts on this blog and research elsewhere, including recently published work on the victims of  ‘Jack the Ripper’ have detailed, violence against women was a depressingly familiar aspect of daily life in late Victorian London. Everyday, women were abused, beaten, sexually assaulted, and killed by men and a great deal of this violence went unprosecuted and unpunished.

Very many women were in a perilous position with regards to confronting their husbands or partners when it came to domestic violence. If they chose to fight back, they could expect not only more and worse violence, but were likely to lose the tacit support of their communities. If they went to law they risked not only a beating, but the economic hardship of losing the family’s main breadwinner or his being fined, another charge of the domestic budget.

As a consequence few women prosecuted their spouses unless they were desperate or recognized the relationship was unrecoverable; they went to law as a last resort, and often, once in front of magistrate, retracted their charges or spoke up in mitigation of their abuser’s actions: ‘he’s a good man, when sober your worship’, was familiar refrain.

Honora Rush decided to go to law when her husband, John, beat her up for the umpteenth time. Honora knew what her laboring spouse was like when he was in his cups and on Sunday night, the 11 March 1888, when she heard his staggered boots ascending he stairs to their room she barred the door with the bed. ‘She knew that he was drunk, and would most likely knock her out’ she told the alderman at Guildhall Police court, and she was right.

John barged his way inside, breaking through the wooden door, and confronted her. He ‘knocked her about’ with his fists and she ran past him but he grabbed her and threw her down the stairs. As she struggled to her feet and began to dust herself down he came out of the room holding a paraffin lamp. Alarmed she asked him to put it down. Instead he came down to her, kicked her in stomach and threw the lamp at her. The flames set her petticoats on fire and ignited the stairs. The other residents of the building rushed out to fetch water and a police constable and John was arrested.

It took some time to put out the fire, PC Cooper explained, but then he questioned the man and the woman and their 11 year-old son. The boy supported his mother’s account but the magistrate was keen to enquire whether she’d given him any provocation for the assault.  Had she been drinking, he wanted to know? Honora said she hadn’t (and the boy confirmed this) but  John said otherwise and Alderman Knill was inclined to believe him.

Both the court’s gaoler and the police confirmed that John Rush had been prosecuted previously for abusing his wife, although on several occasions Honora had not pressed charges, perhaps hoping that the shock of being arrested would do the trick. Sadly she was mistaken. The magistrate seemed not to be inclined to throw the book at this brutal specimen of a husband but he had to do something. Turning to the prisoner in the dock the alderman told him that:

‘it was a most outrageous thing that he, a great burly fellow as he was, should assault his wife in the way I which he had done’. However, the court recognized that since in his opinion, she was ‘not a temperate woman’ there ‘might have been some slight provocation’. He bound Rush over to keep the peace towards her for six months on pain of having to find £5 if he did not. The only person satisfied with that outcome was the labourer himself who tipped his cap to the bench and said, ‘thank sir, I am very much obliged’

Poor Honora must a have been left fearing the worst and any woman reading this would surely have thought that the law offered her no protection whatsoever. This was 1888 and within eight months at least six women in the capital would have been brutally murdered by an unknown killer.  In dingy rooms all over the capital brutish husbands threatened to ‘do for their wives’ like the ‘Ripper’ had. The Whitechapel murderer killed at a time when working-class were cheap, and those of the poorest and most vulnerable, mostly women, were considered cheapest of all.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 13, 1888]

‘These cabmen always drive furiously’: Lord Rothschild has a lucky escape

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An 1891 caricature of Nathan (‘Natty’) Rothschild by Lockhart Bogle in The Graphic

It seems as if traffic accidents were just as likely to occur in late nineteenth-century London as they are in the modern capital, and that the roads were just as crowded. Moreover the image of the policeman directing the flow of vehicles – one we probably now associate with the 1950s and 60s – may be just as appropriate for the 1890s.

In early March 1890 Nathan, the first Baron de Rothschild, was being driven in brougham coach along Queen Victoria Street in the City. A policeman was holding the traffic and had his arm extended up, palm out to signal this. Lord Rothschild’s driver eased his horses to a halt to wait for the officer’s signal to continue.

Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, the coach was hit from behind by a hansom cab. One of the shafts of the cab broke through the brougham, narrowly missing its occupants. Rothschild was shaken, but unhurt. The baron stepped down from the damaged coach and approached the policeman. He handed him his card and said, possibly angrily:

‘These cabmen always drive furiously. Take my card and give it to the Inspector. It will be all right’.

The incident ended up with the cabbie, James Povey, being summoned before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court where he was charged with ‘driving a hansom cab wantonly’. Povey pleaded ‘not guilty’ and one of his passenger that day, a gentleman named Palmer, was in court to support him.

Mr Palmer testified that the baron and his driver could not possibly have seen what happened as they were facing the wrong way. He said that Povey had tried to stop and it was entirely an accident, not ‘wanton’ or dangerous driving. The alderman agreed and dismissed the summons, adding that a claim for the damage to the brougham could be made in the civil courts. There was no need, Povey’s representative (a Mr Edmonds, solicitor for the Cab Union) explained, as that had already been settled.

Rothschild was an important figure in late nineteenth-century Britain, a banker and the financial backer of Cecil Rhodes, he was a noted philanthropist as well, helping fund housing (in the form of model dwellings) for poor Jews in Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Rothschild sat in parliament for the Liberals, although he had been a close friend of the Conservative Prime Minster Benjamin Disraeli. By 1896 he was a peer, sitting in the Lords (as he had since 1885) an honour bestowed by that other great Victorian premier, William Gladstone. He then left the Liberals in 1886, joining forces with Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists as the Liberal Party split over Home Rule for Ireland. He died in 1915 and the current baron, Jacob, is the 4th to hold the title.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, March 11, 1896]

One man throws acid at his wife, while another threatens his with a pistol

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Today I want to compare two separate but related cases heard this week in 1884 before the police magistrate courts of London. Both concern men acting against their wives, and both quite violently.

At Guildhall Police court, in the City of London, George Steel, a metal worker, was charged with threatening to shoot his wife Charlotte. Mrs Steel appeared in court to testify against him and the only other witness of the policeman that arrested him.

According to Charlotte her husband had come home in the morning ‘the worse for drink’ (in other words he was drunk, and we might presume she meant the ‘early hours’ of the morning). The couple rowed, and, as was depressingly common in working-class marriages at the time, came to blows. For some reason George owned a pistol and he seized it and thrust it in her face, threatening to ‘settle her’.

The alderman magistrate was told that it wasn’t the first time the metal worker had used force and threats against his spouse, and that too was very familiar. Wives and partners tended to put up with quite a lot of abuse before they were finally driven by desperation and fear of what might happen to take their complaints to law.

George said he only wanted to scare his wife, and that he only loaded the gun with the intention of firing up the chimney. The justice remanded him in custody to see what might emerge from other witnesses in the next couple of days.

Meanwhile at the Marlborough Street court George Ballard was brought up for second appearance having previously been remanded by Mr Newton for an assault on his (Ballard’s) wife. Ballard was a 38 year-old bootmaker living with Mrs Ballard in Berwick Street, Soho. The couple argued at lot and Ballard was another drinker. The officer of the court who had investigated the case described his wife as ‘a hard working woman’.  He added that he’d been told that the defendant had often threatened his wife and her sister.

George Ballard’s crime was to have thrown vitriol (acid) over his wife in a fit of anger. When questioned his only defense was that she had threatened his life. Mr Newton dismissed this excuse, saying that even if it was true (which he clearly doubted) it was no reason to attack her in such a cowardly way. He sent the bootmaker to prison for six months at hard labour and, ‘as she was capable of maintaining herself’, he granted Mrs Ballard a judicial separation. Hopefully when George got out she would have found somewhere a long way away from him.

Many women wouldn’t have gone as far as Mrs Ballard did in getting the court to remove her husband and bread winner, but she was perhaps in a better position than most, and able – as the justice noted – to look after herself. It was more usual for wives and partners, seemingly regardless of the hurt done to them, to forgive their abusers or retract their evidence, sometimes after the man had spent a few days in a cell.

This was the case with Charlotte Steel. When George Steel was again presented at Guildhall Police court on the 3 February 1884  Charlotte said she was not frightened of him and that he’d never threatened her before. Her sister backed her up, saying she didn’t believe George ever meant to hurt anyone. Alderman Isaac could do little but warn George about his future behaviour telling him that he:

‘had placed himself in a very serious position, for he might have been committed for trial for  threatening to commit murder. He advised him not to have anything to do with firearms again’, and then released him.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 30 January, 1884; The Morning Post), Monday, 4 February, 1884]

‘You talk so fast, you flower girls’: more Eliza Doolittles in the Police courts

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We’ve met London’s small ‘army’ of flower girls before in this blog. The young women that sold flowers at Covent Garden or St Paul’s were not considered ‘respectable’ and that may well have been the reason Professor Higgins chose one of their number for his experiment in elocution. For his ‘Eliza Doolittle’ we have – in January 1886 – three girls all of whom were prosecuted at the Guildhall Police court for obstructing the streets of the City of London.

Kate Moore, Julia Moore (presumably her sister) and Anne Smith were summoned to the City magistrate court for ‘exposing flowers for sale on the footway’ and thereby causing an obstruction to passers-by. The girls were selling flowers on Paternoster Row, near Cheapside, and they’d caught the attention of police constable Francis of the City force.

He seemed to have made it his mission to move them on and told the alderman magistrate that he’d received ‘a great number of complaints’ from ‘ladies of being’ that the girls had been selling their wares aggressively on the street. I suspect that PC Francis was also fairly convinced that the flowers were not only thing the women were offering for sale.

The association of flowers girls with prostitution was  well established in the 1800s as was the location of St Paul’s and Covent Garden. As Kate protested in court that they’d been doing nothing wrong and merely trying to support themselves and their families the alderman (Sir Andrew Lusk) interrupted her:

‘You talk so fast, you flower girls; I don’t know whether you are fast yourselves, but you talk very fast’.

His implication was that the young women were immoral at best; morally corrupt at worst and, either way, in the wrong.  The City chief police inspector, Tillock, added that the women had chosen a particularly poor place to trade, especially as they stood together. To them this may have represented strength in numbers, to the police it looked intimidating and for the public it created an obstruction.

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Sir Andrew (right) was clearly enjoying the opportunity to show off his comedic side to the watching public and press:

‘You think you make a nice bunch of flowers, I suppose’ he told them before fining them 2s costs and warning them that a sliding scale of penalties awaited them if they didn’t heed this warning. Next time they would pay a fine of 26d, rising to 5(with costs of 2s each time to be added). He probably thought that be letting them off a fine on this occasion he was being lenient but it mattered little to the trio of young women as they had no money anyway.

Kate told the court that they had not earned 2 shillings in the whole week. Sir Andrew was unmoved, ‘pay the money, or go to prison’ he warned them.

[from The Standard, Monday, January 11, 1886]

‘No home, no parish, and nothing to eat’: But there is little Christmas cheer from the City bench

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In some of the interviews with homeless people and reports of their plights this winter one of the depressing strategies that emerged is that some individuals would prefer to commit a crime and go to prison for a few days or weeks than suffer the cold and hunger of living on the streets at this time of the year. British prisons are not nice places; they are overcrowded, dangerous, drugged fueled and brutalizing – no one would choose to go there if they had a choice.

Yet even modern prisons compare well with those of Victorian London. In 1845 London was still being served by some of the institutions that had survived from the Georgian period – the houses of correction  like Clerkenwell that had last been rebuilt in 1775, the extant Newgate Gaol had been reconstructed after the Gordon Riots in 1780, and even Bridewell, one of the oldest gaols in the capital, was not to close until 1855.

Brixton Prison opened in 1820 but despite been new it was described as ‘one of the unhealthiest prisons in London’.* Four young girls had spent 10 days inside the gaol, on a diet of basic food and set to hard labour. Their crime was breaking windows but their intention had been to get off the streets so when they were released they set about finding a way back inside again.

Eliza Jones, Mary Hayes, Eliza Montague and Martha Pike attacked Mr Inglis’ biscuit shop on St Paul’s Churchyard, pelting it with stones. They broke several panes and were promptly arrested and brought before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court.

The girls had used heavy stones – at least a pound each – one of which was produced in court as evidence of their ‘mischief’. Poor Mr Inglis was out of pocket to the tune of £12 which, at about £700 in today’s money, was a considerable sum. He said that the girls had originally come in to ask if he could spare them any stale buns as they were starving. When he said he had none they broke his windows.

The four girls pleaded that they ‘had no home, no parish, and they were hungry’. Alderman Hughes was not sympathetic however, what they had done was an outrage: ‘they had wantonly inflicted a grievous loss on a tradesman’. Inglis was contributing to the poor rates so, indirectly, he was supporting individuals just like them (although since they had ‘no parish’ he wasn’t really).

If the girls thought their actions would secure them a bed and festive food for the Christmas period he would make sure they were disappointed. They would go to gaol, for two months at hard labour, but he gave orders that ‘they should be strictly excluded from partaking of the Christmas fare’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, 23 December, 1845]

* B. Wienreb and C. Hibbert, The London Encylopaedia

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