‘I’ll steal from you Mr Robinson’: pilfering in the Victorian department store

BL21024

Edith Oliver’s appearance at Marlborough Street Police court in May 1876 gives us a glimpse back at the beginnings of the department store in London. Edith was accused of stealing ‘a bonnet shape’ from her employer and when her lodgings were searched several other items were found, including ‘lace, silk, and velvet materials used in the workroom’ on Oxford Street.

The bonnet pattern had been discovered concealed under Edith’s clothes so she must been the subject on suspicion, perhaps based on information from another employee. The firm employed 500 workers and there were notices posted up all over the building warning the staff of the consequences of taking home things that belonged to the company without permission.

Wages for workers in the clothing trades in the late 1800s weren’t large and Edith (like many others) was probably keen to supplement them by doing private work or making and repairing clothes for her family. There was nothing new in this of course, workers had been taking home offcuts as ‘perks’ (perquisites) of the job for centuries. It was in the previous century that the owners of businesses had started to clamp down in such pilferage, and parliament had obliged by passing hundreds of laws to prohibit thefts from the workplace with the threat of capital punishment for those that persisted.

By 1876 Edith wasn’t going to face such a severe penalty but if convicted she would almost certainly lose her liberty, and her job. Mr Addrett, the works manager, said that they were vulnerable to pilfering an so it was necessary to make an example of her. William Franklin, a timekeeper at the firm, testified that Edith had told him she was setting herself up in business privately and that the goods found at her home belonged to her and weren’t stolen.

Mr Newton, the sitting magistrate, found Edith quietly and sentenced her to 14 days hard labour. She would also lose her job but he didn’t think that would affect her too much, and fully believed she would find work again afterwards somewhere else. He hinted that there should be a tighter control of such staff and that character references should be taken as they were for domestics. Otherwise someone like Edith might walk into employment and start pilfering all over again.

Now we routinely take references which often ask questions about the prospective employee’s honesty and suitability. Edith would have found it hard to get similar work without the Mr Addrett’s recommendation  but I’m sure if she was a talented seamstress she would have had no problem getting piece work away from the bright lights of Oxford Street and over in the East End.

Which brings me to reveal where Edith worked. She was employed by Mr Peter Robinson, silk mercer, on Oxford Circus. Robinson had run a business in the West End from the 1830s and opened his department store on Oxford Street in 1850. By 1876 he was dead and since he had no male children the store must have been run by someone else. It wasn’t run by his younger assistant, John Lewis, because he turned down the opportunity to go into business with his mentor, opting instead to open his own shop in 1864. I wonder how he got on?

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 26, 1876]

‘He said he would have her life, and break every bone in her body’.

th48AWEHFE

It took a lot for women to stand up to their husbands in the Victorian period. Theoretically the law protected victims of abuse but this often meant that violent men were fined, bound over to the keep the peace, or imprisoned if they beat their wives or partners. None of these options was ideal for the women involved; two of them directly impacted the family budget and the third was often deemed to be ineffectual. Poor Londoners believed that magistrates could enforce separation orders or sanction a divorce of sorts but this wasn’t in their power however much they might have liked to use it.

This didn’t stop women bringing their partners to court however and throughout the 1800s they came in their droves. One such woman was Mary Norris. Mary was a bricklayer’s wife living in the East End of London. She was probably in her late 30s (as her husband Henry was 40 in 1879) and she was regularly abused and beaten by him.

Women put up with a lot before they went to law. This was very much a last resort because taking your husband to court was a drastic move that often had unwanted consequences. Quite apart from the financial consequences of losing a breadwinner or incurring a fine, or the public shame of admitting that your marriage was in trouble, a woman could expect retribution from her partner immediately or soon after the return to the family home.

So Mary was not only desperate for the abuse to stop she was also brave. She explained to the Worship Street magistrate that Henry had come home on Monday night late from work, having been out drinking for several hours. As soon as he stepped through the door the abuse began.

‘he took up a knife and threatened to stab her; said he would have her life, and break every bone in her body’.

It was nothing new, she told Mr Newton (the magistrate), she

was dreadfully afraid of him doing her some violence, as he had repeatedly beaten and threatened her with the same knife. She went in bodily fear’ she added.

Other witnesses testified to Henry being drunk that night, and to his threats and an officer of the Associate Institute for Improving and Enforcing the Laws for the Protection of Women and Children appeared. Mr Moore stated that he believed Norris already carried a previous conviction for assaulting Mary. This is interesting because it tells us that there were organizations involved in prosecuting violent husbands and father at this time, charities that took on a role that is now performed by social services.

His evidence was confirmed by an officer at the court who said Norris had been up before the justice on four previous occasions, ‘three times sent to prison’, and once bound over. The message was clearly not getting through to him and Mary was still at risk. But there was little the magistrate could do. He ordered the bricklayer to find two sureties to ensure he kept the peace for three months (at £10 each) but Henry refused. He opted for prison and was taken away.

Mary’s best option was to leave him and get as far away as possible, but that was almost impossible. The law would only really act when things had gone too far. If Norris did his wife more serious harm – by wounding or killing her – then he would be locked up for a long time, for life or be executed. Not that those outcomes were likely to be of any use to Mary if she was dead.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, May 21, 1869]

An unconventional Lady and her runaway maid

EdinburghUnitedISMap1877-500

United Industrial School site, Edinburgh, c.1877.

In the nineteenth century concern about juvenile crime and the fate of those young people caught up in led Mary Carpenter and others to campaign for the building of reformatories. In 1851 Carpenter had publisher an influential tract on the reform of juveniles and in 1852 she and Russell established a reformatory at Kingswood near Bristol. Two years’ later she opened a similar institution for girls at Red Lodge.

These were private charitable initiatives but gained government support in 1854 with the passing of the Young Offenders Act that encouraged their building and allowed magistrates to send juvenile criminals to them. In 1857 new legislation created Industrial Schools; both operated as a sort of public/private enterprise to remove young offenders from the streets of Britain’s crowded cities and educated them for a new life, away from the temptations and corruption of the homes they left behind. Boys were usually trained for industry or agriculture, while girls were taught to sew or to be domestic servants. All were taught to read and write so they knew their letters and could read the Bible.

Mary Ann Millen was a reformatory girl. At 18 she had been released from an institution in her native Edinburgh and sent to work in the household of Lady Douglas in London.

I wonder if this might have been Lady Gertrude Douglas, the daughter of the seventh marquise of Queensbury and an author in her own right. Gertrude, using the pseudonym ‘George Douglas’, wrote several Scottish based novels in the 1870s but lived in London, where she later helped her brother with his school. In 1882 she married one of the pupils, Thomas Henry Stock; she was 40, he was just 18.

Lady Douglas was familiar with the Edinburgh reformatory and the girls there. Perhaps she made charitable donations as a patron or involved herself on the board of trustees; this would have been exactly the sort of philanthropic ‘work’ that a Victorian lady could be involved in without drawing undue attention to herself, not that it seems that Gertrude was worried about other people’s opinions of her.

Mary arrived in London in April 1872. She was 18 and spoke with a heavy Scots accent. It must have seemed a very strange world to her; while Edinburgh was a busy modern city in the late 1800s it was tiny by comparison to the capital. Lady Douglas’ other servants were all English and Mary struggled to make friends, and even to make herself understood.

She lasted three weeks at the house in Gloucester Terrace, Kensington, before running away and making the long journey back to Scotland. She was quickly missed. Money was missing from a dressing room table and one of the servants had lost a waterproof coat. Lady Douglas summoned the police and a detective caught the next available train to Edinburgh.

It didn’t take Detective Seymour long to run down the runaway. Mary probably had few other options than to head for familiar territory in the neighbourhood where she’d grown up before being sent to the reformatory. Seymour had sent a telegram to the local police and their enquiries led Seymour to the High Street where he found Mary and arrested her.

She was wearing the coat and had just £2 17sof the money left. She’d bought some clothes and presumably paid her fare and had something to eat, the rest had ‘been taken from her’ she said.

Mary returned to London with the officer and appeared before Mr Bridge at Hammersmith Police court. Lady Douglas was there and intervened on the girl’s behalf. It was her desire that the girl should return to the reformatory in Edinburgh rather than suffer worse punishment in London. The magistrate was willing to grant her wish but on the condition that Mary had a taste of imprisonment to deter her from future crime. He sent her to prison for one day and ordered that thereafter she be handed over to Lady Douglas so she could be taken back to Scotland.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 15, 1872]

p.s Lady Gertrude philanthropy was not confined to poor Scotch lasses. In 1891 she founded the Dog’s Trust, which continues to this day. By then her marriage had broken down. Her husband had emigrated to South Africa and she ended her days in a convent hospital, dying of consumption in 1892. 

‘The road is as much mine as yours to-night and I shan’t drive you an inch’: A cabbie who won’t go south of the river without a hefty tip

theatre playbill B20105 06

In 1875 the Adelphi theatre in the Strand was staging a production of Nicholas Nickelby. Dickens’ third novel had been turned into a play almost as soon as it had appeared in print and the author didn’t profit from the misappropriation of his work. By 1875 Dickens was dead anyway and the story of Nickelby, the impoverished schoolmaster and the quite awful Wackford Squeers, was a popular standard for Victorian audiences and the Adelphi had been amongst the first theatres to put it on.

Once the show was over the Aldelphi’s manger, a Mr Chatterton, went on to enjoy an evening of the opera at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane before meeting up with a friend for drinks. Chatterton finally left the Albion Tavern at just after midnight and he and his chum, Mr Webster, asked a linkman to fetch them a cab.

It was a dreadful night, pouring with rain and it took the man about a quarter of an hour to secure a hansom cab for the friends as he’d had to go all the way to the Haymarket to find one. Chatterton helped the other man into the cab (which suggests to me at least that he was a little the worse for drink) before clambering in himself. The driver (John Dredge) got down from his seat to ask them where they wanted to go.

‘Clapham Road, near the Kennington Church’ Chatterton told him.

While this was only a journey of about 3 miles it did involve going south of the river and would probably have taken half an hour (and of course another 30 minutes for Dredge to get back into town and home). Under the bylaws governing licensed cabs he had to be home by 1 in the morning (or a pay a fine at the rate of 16an hour), so given how late it was he was reluctant to ‘go south of the river’ at that hour. However, if the money was right he was prepared to carry the gentlemen.

‘I am not obliged to go that way, and shall not go unless you pay be liberally’, Dredge told them, ‘what are you going to give me?’

Chatterton didn’t want to get into an auction with a cabbie so decided to find an alternative way home. ‘If you won’t go there’ he insisted, ‘drive me to the station in Bow Street’.

This infuriated the cab driver. Bow Street was literally just around the corner from the pub. ‘Oh that’s your game is it?’ he told them, ‘The road is as much mine as your to-night and I shan’t drive you an inch’. Webster tried to reason with him but Dredge was having nothing of it; he clearly felt the gentlemen were taking the mickey because they were tipsy. Chatterton was not at all amused however, and called a policeman who took the cab driver’s number.

Ten days later Dredge was summoned to appear at Bow Street Police court before Mr Vaughan. Cab drivers had a poor reputation for insolence and magistrates rarely missed a chance to punish them for it. Despite Dredge insisting that he thought the two men were drunk but now apologising for being mistaken and for ‘having cast such an imputation’ the justice decided to throw the book at him.

He said it was evident that Dredge’s intention was to ‘extort more than his legal fare’ and the ‘public were not to be exposed to such a system’. So, as a ‘warning to other cabmen’ he fined him 40(or a month in prison) and suspended his license for a month.

Dredge was stunned, and so was the theatre manager. Surely Mr Vaughan didn’t mean to deprive the man of his livelihood as well as fining him the equivalent of £120 today (about two week’s wages at the time). The Bow Street magistrate was unmoved by either man however, and insisted his mind was made up and the penalty would stand.

I suspect this decision would have filtered down to Dredge’s fellow drivers but not necessarily with the effect that the justice wanted. London cab drivers are unlikely to have reacted well to being told what to do, or to one of their own being treated quite so harshly.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, May 12, 1875]

for other stories featuring London hansom cab drivers see:

Cabbies get a raw deal at Westminster

A cabbie pushes his luck at Bow Street

An unfortunate cabbie picks a fight he can’t win

The cabbie and the lady who knew too much

 

 

 

A ragged individual with a curious hobby

An unequal match.

John Tenniel’s cartoon of the battle between the police and the ‘criminal class’,

(Punch, c.1881)

When PC 585E discovered William Roast sheltering in a doorway he was understandably suspicious. It was 3 o’clock in the morning, the perfect hour for burglars, and Roast appeared to be peering through the door’s keyhole. So the policeman touched him on the shoulder and demanded to know what he was up to.

Roast explained that he’d been unable to sleep so had gone for a walk. He’d actually been listening at the door for the sound of a clock chiming inside, so he could tell what hour it was. The copper was unconvinced and took him into custody. On searching him he unearthed a ‘a long piece of thick wire, with a hook on the end’.

At Bow Street the magistrate asked the officer what he thought the wire was for. The constable replied that he believed it was created for the purpose of unlocking doors. Roast had been charged with loitering ‘for a supposed unlawful purpose’ (loitering with intent in other words) and there seemed plenty of substance to that charge but the justice gave the man the chance to explain himself.

Roast’s defence was punctuated by ‘a series of short coughs every time he hesitated’ (which I think the reporter notes as way of suggesting the prisoner was allowing himself time to think up his excuses, when in reality he had none).

‘The reason I was out at that early hour is because I didn’t go to a place of worship on a Sunday, when I always stay in doors’ [it was Monday, so this was vaguely plausible].

‘But I felt rather restless, and found myself sitting up in bed, so I thought I would take a little exercise, and so I went for a walk at about one o’clock’.

He then added his explanation about wishing to know the time. The magistrate wanted to know about the wire, and why he had it.

 ‘Well sir, I suppose that’s my hobby. But I will be careful in the future, sir’.

If he thought that was the end of it he was to be disappointed. The magistrate said he hoped he would be more careful in future but told him that he would be remanded in custody while some more enquiries were made to see ‘what you were in the past’.

He clearly suspected Roast was a burglar or otherwise a thief, and probably one with a previous record of convictions. The burglar was the quintessential Victorian criminal and the papers were full of stories about their robberies and adverts for anti-burglar traps and alarms.

Roast (who was described in the press as  ‘a ragged looking individual’) was probably aware that even if he was ‘done’ for loitering with intent, unless other offences could be proved against him or his previous convictions earned him something worse, he was looking at a brief spell inside at worst.

The only William Roast I can find in the archives is from 1865 when a 29-year-old man of that name is listed as being in prison. The Digital Panopticon doesn’t tell me what he did and there are no William Roasts at the Old Bailey. So quite possibly he gave a false name or he was a very fortunate thief, and kept out of the arms of the law.

Just possibly of course, he was telling the truth, but I doubt it.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, May 03, 1870

The butler did it, but which butler?

dc02123ed282af97def1f8403ba50d8b

There must always have been some semblance of doubt when households employed a new member of the domestic staff, especially one as critical for the running of the house as a butler. The butler was the most senior male servant in the Victorian period and would be responsible for the conduct of all of those below him. It was imperative, therefore, that the butler had the confidence of his master and mistress and was above suspicion in terms of his honesty.

For whatever reason William Clarke no longer enjoyed his employer’s confidence or affection yet there was no suggestion that he was anything other than completely honest. The reality was though, that in late April 1881 he found himself surplus to requirements and as he worked out his notice he had the task of showing the new butler around his home.

Charles Reeve had, by his own admission, been out of position for a period of several moths. Presumably however, he came with a set of verifiable references because his master lived at a prestigious address, 35 Hans Place, Sloane Street, Chelsea and was a commander in the Royal Navy.

On the day Reeve joined the household (and Clarke showed him his duties) a tradesman called to deliver an envelope containing a £5 note and two sovereigns. This was the balanced (the ‘change’) from an invoice Captain (Commander*) Francis Lowther had paid by cheque. Clarke placed the envelope, unopened, on a marble slab in the hallway and thought no more of it. He left in the evening leaving the new man in charge.

Sadly though Reeve, perhaps thinking his new employers would be late back and not needing him, chose to celebrate his new position with a few glasses of alcohol. When the commander and his wife returned not only had the envelope mysteriously disappeared, the new butler was also dead drunk.

At first it was thought that Clarke must have run off with the missing money but then the finger was pointed at Reeve, since he had protested his lack of money when he arrived. How had he suddenly been able to afford to drink himself into an inebriated state?

In court at Westminster Reeve’s lawyer posted his client’s innocence. He’d come by his own money honestly and would hardly have jeopardised his position on the very first day. He had previously served the Duke of Argyll and another ‘noble lord’ and his credentials as an honest man were unquestionable.

Captain Lowther said he had no real suspicions over any of his established staff, believing them all to be honest. Mr D’Eyncourt, the sitting magistrate, had nothing which justified indicting Reeve as a thief however, so he simply required him to enter into his own recognizances in case he was obliged to return to court in the future should more evidence arise. Did he remain in position at Hans Place? That would seem awkward for all concerned since if he hadn’t stolen the money, who had?

[from The Morning Post , Monday, May 02, 1881]

*as a Commander in the Royal Navy Lowther was either shore bound waiting for a commission (either as a captain of a smaller vessel, or second in command on a larger one) or was part of the Admiralty staff in the capital. He may also have been retired from the Navy and living on his pension. If there is another alternative explanation I’m sure someone will tell me!

‘Clothed in the dirtiest of rags’; three little urchins at Worship Street.

71c8f5d885ca40dfe7b399b7afb86d46--victorian-london-victorian-era

Alice and Rosina Purcell were homeless. The sisters survived on whatever they could scavenge around Spitalfields Market, living on ‘rotten fruit and begging of the salesmen’ there. Thomas Williams was also destitute and had no other means of supporting himself besides begging. All three of them fell foul of the laws against vagrancy and begging and in late April 1872 were arrested and taken before Mr Hannay at Worship Street Police court.

Alice and Rosina must have struggled to see over the dock because they were just children, aged between 6 and 8 years. A school board officer named Mr Gear had picked them and enquiries were made by the local police. The girls’ mother was dead and their father, who worked as labourer at the London docks, ‘left nothing for them’. They were both ‘clothed in the dirtiest of rags, although they looked cheerful and intelligent’.

The magistrate wanted to send them to school but they were Protestants Mr Gear told him, and at present there were no vacancies in Protestant schools so the pair were remanded for a week and sent to the nearest workhouse.

As for Thomas (who was 13), he had been brought in by police constable Barker (141N) and had also been remanded to a workhouse and in the meantime a school had been found for him. Here the school option was complicated however.  The choice of a Catholic school was based on information given to the court when first the case was aired a week ago.  It was claimed, by the landlord where his family had formally lived, that the lad had been brought up a Catholic. Thomas, who had lost both his parents, hadn’t contradicted him. However now Thomas objected to being sent to a Catholic school and said that he had in fact been a pupil at St Mark’s Protestant school in Hoxton.

Mr Hannay asked him why he hadn’t said this earlier to save the confusion? Thoams admitted he hadn’t wanted to say anything in court, possibly because the poor lad was simply bewildered or afraid.

Religion was important and so even though these children were paupers with no parents to speak for them (or at least as in the girls’ case who were prepared to take responsibility for them) Mr Hannay was determined that they should be educated within the tenets of their faith, and where possible, I expect, he would always have favoured the reformed church over the Roman one.

If only society was as bothered about the fact that three children were wandering the streets of the world’s largest city starving and living on their wits quite as much as they cared which version of the Christian doctrine was used to educate them. It smacks, to me at least, of gross hypocrisy.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, May 01, 1872]