Stealing from John Lewis earns a ‘respectable’ woman an unwelcome day in court.

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John Lewis’ Oxford Street store, c.1885

Given the proliferation of shops in the capital it is not surprising that shoplifting was much more of a problem here than in most other towns in England. London was the shopping capital of northern Europe in the late 1800s and the concept of large department stores had been imported from America.

Shoplifting had always been associated with female offering. That’s not to say than men and boys didn’t do it, they did of course, but this was a crime which was more evenly distributed by gender. Robbery and burglary were crimes which were overwhelmingly committed by males, picking pockets and stealing from shops were much more likely to be undertaken by women and girls.

In the second half of the 1800s the idea that some women  (generally ‘respectable’ women) might steal because of a weakness, a compulsion to thieve, gained ground. Kleptomania was coined and became a way of explaining the theft of items (often small luxuries) by women who could easily afford to pay for them.

Of course this dent make it any less annoying for the poor shopkeeper. Nor did necessarily excuse such behaviour. In July 1888, just before the Whitechapel murderer began his atrocities in the East End, a ‘respectably connected’ woman was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street caused of stealing from Messers. Lewis in Oxford Street.

Ellen Harris (or possibly Ellen Barker as the court reporter noted she had an alias – often a sign of previous criminal connections) – was charged with stealing a black silk jersey from the store (the forerunner of the John Lewis Partnership we all know today). Ellen had ben in the shop on the Monday in the mantle department and had bought and paid for some items. An assistant the saw her select the jersey and hide it under her waterproof jacket and walk away.

The assistant told the store manager (Walter Cryer) and he followed her. Ellen left the store and started to stroll down Oxford Street. In the classic mode of a store detective Cryer tapped her on the shoulder and asked if she would accompany him back to the shop. Once inside and at the foot of the first staircase Cryer challenged her with the fact that she’d taken the jersey without paying for it.

Ellen denied it and started back up the stair. She stopped halfway, putting her hand inside her jacket and asked him:

‘If I give it to you now, will that do?’

It would not, Mr Cyrer replied and said he’d already summoned a detective to investigate. When he failed to show up Cryer went and found a policeman on the street and handed the woman over. She pleaded with them not to take her in saying she was ‘respectably connected’. In court her solicitor suggested that it was a mistake, that Ellen was ‘absent minded’ and ‘vacant’ when stopped by the store manger. He was trying to paint a picture of a woman who was not entirely in her right mind, one suffering from a compulsion she could not control.

The constable that took her into custody rather supported this interpretation but the store manager disagreed. In the end Mr Hannay, the police court magistrate, denied he could not deal with the case and remanded her with a view to sending her for trial.  At the last moment another witness appeared; the manager of another large store, Gask and Gask’s. He identified a number of handkerchiefs that the police had found in Ellen’s possession as the property of his shop. Things didn’t look good for Ellen.

In the end Ellen was prosecuted at the Middlesex Sessions and convicted of theft from John Lewis and Gask’s.  She was 40 years of age and described simply as ‘married’. The judge didn’t send her prison so perhaps he thought there was grounds for accepting a plea that she was ‘distracted’ in some way. The court took sureties as to her future behaviour, and perhaps these were guaranteed by her husband or wider family. If she’d been younger, or unmarried, or working class, I doubt she’d have got off so lightly.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 11, 1888]

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

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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]

A ‘bully’ is seized; a case of mistaken identity in Leicester Square

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Stagg & Mantle’s store on Leicester Square

One of the things that fascinates me whilst reading the reports of the Victorian police courts is the changing use of language, especially slang. Language is always evolving of course; one only needs to spend time around young people to see how they create new words and adapt old ones. Slang (like underworld cant or Cockney rhyming slang) effectively excludes those that don’t understand it and allows conversions to occur in the hearing of those we’d rather didn’t understand what we were saying.

However when we look back into history to read about the people from the past through their own words the changing use and definition of words can be quite confusing. For example ‘gay’ which has changed its meaning considerably over the centuries. Now it almost universally refers to homosexuality but this probably only dates back to the 1930s, and only to men (and possibly only in the US). For most of the twentieth century in Britain it means happy, cheerful and it still is used like that.

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In the late 1850s (a period of concern about sexual health following revelations about the disastrous state of British troops in the Crimean War) ‘gay’ was a slang term for female prostitution (as seen in a famous cartoon from the time – shown on the left).

Another family word today is ‘bully’ which I think we would all understand to mean someone who uses their strength or position of power to intimate or exploit someone else. Bullying is rightly at the top of school and work agendas as something that needs to be dealt with and that vulnerable people should be protected from.

So would you be surprised to discover that in the 1800s (and indeed earlier) ‘bully’ was a slang term for a protector? It seems strange until we unpack it a little more and find that ‘a bully’ in Victorian terminology meant a prostitute’s protector, or in modern language, her ‘pimp’. Victorian bullies profited from the money made by street prostitutes and ‘protected’ them from other bullies or competitors for their territory.

Once you know that this report from the mid 1870s makes more sense.

Detective Leader of C Division (Metropolitan Police) was standing at the corner of Leicester Square watching a crowd of people outside Stagg and Mantle’s department store. Some of the more fashionable London streets attracted prostitutes and thieves and the police often watched for well-known or suspicious characters to catch them in the act of committing crime. Detective Leader was in plain clothes and looked like an ordinary member of the public.

Looking across Leader suddenly noticed a man, possibly drunk, wade into the crowd and start an altercation with a small group of women. He quickly intervened to separate them only to find that the man seized him by the collar and then declared that he was under arrest. The man, who was a recently discharged soldier named William Corrington, told the policeman that he (the soldier) was a detective and that he was arresting him (the actual detective) and would take him to the nearest police station. His explanation was that Leader was a ‘bully’ and so he must have believed he was trying to protect the women from the former solider.

The detective tried to explain  that the man was mistaken; he was the copper and he had been watching these women, but Corrington was too drunk to understand. A nearby uniformed officer saw what was happening and came to his colleague’s assistance and the man stood aside. But this was only temporary, when he saw that the detective wasn’t going anyway the ex-army man lurched forward again declaring:

‘You are loitering here again, and I shall take you to the station’.

Since Corrington could not or would not see sense, Leader and PC Harding (28C reserve) hauled him off to the nick and he was presented before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street in the morning on a charge of ‘annoying’ the detective in the course of executing his duty. The magistrate fined him 20(or 14 days imprisonment if he couldn’t pay).

Poor Corrington. He’d been discharged from the army only a few days earlier, we don’t know why. He was clearly drunk but possibly suffering in other ways. Prostitutes were exploited themselves of course, but they also preyed on drunk men and maybe William had fallen victim and had had his pocket pinched in the past. It is often remarked that the police (in plain clothes) can look remarkably similar to the criminals they are pursuing so maybe this was an honest mistake. This story does tell us as well, that the West End of London was considered a ripe spot for petty crime and vice in the 1870s, and little has changed there today.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 09, 1875]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

A mugging outside Swan & Edgar’s reveals the reality of everyday crime in London

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Some of the cases that come before the nineteenth-century magistracy are useful in revealing how criminals operated.

The most common type of offending throughout the 1800s was theft. This usually meant relatively petty, non-violent thefts such as shoplifting, picking pockets and embezzlement. The archetypal serious property crime of the 1800s was burglary and the papers devoted considerable space to the problem. However while ‘classic’ robbery (the sort we associate with highwayman) was largely confined to the previous century, it still happened in the Victorian period.

This example, from Marlborough Street in 1889, looks very much like a mugging to modern eyes, but then that is what robbery was.

It was a Sunday morning and a barrister-at-law named Moyses was passing by the windows of Swan & Edgars, the department store, at Piccadilly Circus when a man approached him. The man appeared to want to speak to him as he placed one of his hands to the side of his face and leaned in.

‘Then in a second or two he was knocked violently against one of the pilasters, and felt a hand in his pocket and something snap’.

The man, whose name was John Harrington, had struck him, pushed him against the building and then had stolen his watch from inside his  coat. AS several passers-by raised the alarm the thief attempted to make his getaway. Unfortunately for Harrington the crowd pressed in too quickly and he was surrounded; within moments a police constable arrived and the would-be thief was captured.

However, when Harrington was searched at the police station Mr Moyses’ gold watch was nowhere to be found. In court the justice was told that a second man had been involve din the attack. According to Henry Hart, a singer, as Harrington had assaulted the barrister another man had come up and ‘the prisoner passed something to him’. This must have ben the watch. So while the crowd concentrated on the attack on Mr Moyses, the other member of the ‘gang’ escaped.

This will be familiar to anyone who is aware of how pickpockets and thieves operate in modern London, indeed probably at Piccadilly Circus. If you are unlucky enough to be mugged or (more gently) ‘pickpocketed’, the initial thief will palm your phone or wallet to a confederate who will walk or run off sharply. They will then pass the stolen goods to someone else, or drop them in a ‘safe’ spot to be collected later, by another member of the gang.

All of this made (and makes) it extremely hard to get a conviction. For anything to stick in court there needed to be proof that a crime had occurred and that the accused could be associated directly with it.

In this case the witness, Hart, was potentially crucial. He said that he had seen the assault on Mr Moyses, and watched the prisoner Harrington try to escape from the ring of people that surrounded him. As Harrington had attempted to ‘dive’ between the legs of the gathered crowd the ‘vocalist’ had followed, grabbing onto the tails of his coat and holding him long enough for the police to effect an arrest.

The policeman had searched the immediate area for the missing watch, using his lamp, but nothing was found. At first he thought Mr Moyses was drunk because he was so dizzy from the attack. As a precaution he took both assailant and victim back to the police station in Vine Street where it became clear that the law man was simply suffering from the ‘violence of the attack’ made on him. In court Mr Moyses denied being drunk and said he was merely ‘dazed’ by what had happened.

In the end there wasn’t really sufficient evidence for a charge of theft however. There was no gold watch, no accomplice, and it was far from clear that Harrington had done much more than shove the barrister against the Swan & Edgar building. As a result all parties were dismissed and Mr Moyses would have had to accept that he needed to be a little more aware of where he was and what he was doing in future, and keep strangers at a distance.

As for Harrington, well so long as he kept out of Marlborough Street Police Court for the foreseeable future he was probably safe. If he appeared there again however, he was likely to face the full force of the legal system – especially if he found that the barrister prosecuting him was his previous victim!

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 12, 1889]