Tears in the dock as a young pickpocket tries to win hearts and minds

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What is the purpose of pockets? Today it seems that they have become a semi-practical part of fashion, not always that useful and sometimes there just for show. In the eighteenth century ‘pocket picking’ was made a capital offences, which suggests that it had become a serious problem. The actual law refers to ‘stealing privately from the person’ – in other words stealing without the victim being aware of it.

It was also one of the earliest forms of theft to be removed from the threat of hanging, along with shoplifting. Both forms of larceny were often committed by women and children and so prosecutors were less inclined to bring a charge and juries reluctant to convict when they knew that it might result in an execution. Today it is unlikely that someone would be sent to prison for picking pockets unless they were a serial offender for whom alternative measures had been tried and had failed.

But let’s return to the pocket.  In the 1600s women used pockets as they might use handbags today. They were usually concealed under their dresses or petticoats, so not as decorative fashion accessories. Men also had pockets and these were sewn into the linings of their clothes, again with the intention that they were not visible.

This meant they were a good place to keep valuables (money, jewelry, papers etc.) It also meant they were targeted by thieves. Pockets would have been of no use if a woman had to take off her outer garments to access her pockets so openings in the outer ware enabled her to reach her concealed pockets. It was through these ‘hidden’ opening that pickpockets were able to strike.

Of course that took skill and an ability to get close to the person for long enough to ‘dip’ their pockets, either removing items or cutting the strings that attached it to your clothes. Women and children were especially good that this because the possessed the manual dexterity to secretly invade another’s clothing and were not seen as of much of a threat when close to you in a crowd.

Pockets went out of fashion for ‘ladies of quality’ in the 1790s, being gradually replaced by the handbag, but remained part of working class clothing and male fashion. I was interested by the following short report of a pickpocketing case from 1859 because the nature of pockets is specifically referred to.

William Burke was brought before Mr Corrie at Clerkenwell Police court accused of picking a man’s pocket. The victim said that he had been walking along the Goswell Road when he felt a tug at his pocket. Looking down he saw Burke – with his handkerchief in his hand – making his escape. The prosecutor rushed after him and caught him up, handing him over to a policeman.

The court was told that several victims had lost handkerchiefs to pick pockets in the area recently and the victim stated that as a result he had started to ask his tailor to make his pockets inside his coat.  Mr Corrie didn’t think that would stop the thieves: he had been having pockets made inside for a while but ‘but still he had his handkerchief taken from his pocket’.

William Burke began to cry – he was only 10 years old after all – but the magistrate (and reporter it seems) dismissed this as a act; an attempt to gain sympathy and ward off a more severe punishment.

Did it work? Well Mr Corrie sentenced the lad to 3 months in the house of correction with hard labour. That seems pretty harsh for a 10 year-old found guilty of stealing a hankie but young William took it well, smiling at the magistrate as he sentenced him.  Perhaps he feared worse.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, August 9, 1859]

If you pay peanuts what do you expect? Exploitation in the Victorian rag trade

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Mrs Davis was a shirt maker operating in Houndsditch on the edge of the City of London. She lived in Gun Square and made shirts for a shopkeeper (Mr Cook) who had a premises on the corner of St Paul’s Churchyard close by Wren’s masterpiece. Mrs Davis took delivery of materials from Mr Cook’s warehouse and gave him back ‘fine shirts’ for which she was usually paid half a crown (26d) each.

In order to make the number of shirts Mr Cook required Mrs Davis farmed out some of the work to others, including Elizabeth Harding a girl of 19. She paid Elizabeth 6d for an evening’s work which she thought was enough time to make one shirt. So she was pocketing 2for herself for each item Elizabeth made for her, not a great deal for the younger woman.

In November 1843 Mrs Davis discovered that Elizabeth  had completed one of the eight shirts she’d given her but had pawned; the others were so incomplete that she had to pay someone else 3s  to finish them. When she took the seven shirts to the warehouse the foreman refused to take them as he was expecting the contracted eight. Not only that but he then demanded she pay him 16s  for the raw materials that Mr Cook had supplied.

Mrs Davis was out of pocket and extremely angry with Elizabeth, so took her before the magistrate at Guildhall to complain.  Elizabeth Harding was charged with the theft of a shirt (the one she had pawned) and Alderman Farebrother was told the whole sorry story.

He wasn’t particularly sympathetic to Mrs Davis. He could see why a girl who was paid just sixpence a day was ‘sometimes tempted to do wrong’. His wider point is still relevant today when we look around the world at the sweatshops that produce fashion for British highstreet for a fraction of the amount that the shops charge the customer. Mr Farebrother declared that:

‘he wished that those that who were fond of buying those very cheap articles were obliged to make them at the price’.

Mrs Davis listened to the fine gentleman’s words with a stony expression on her face. She retorted that

‘she fared no better than her assistants, for she was a widow, with children dependent on her. She had sometimes to make shirts at 3each, and even at 2d.’

It was not unknown for the price to fall even lower than that, she added.

In the end the alderman referred the case to the Lord Mayor (the City’s chief magistrate) and remanded her so that questions could be asked at the pawnbrokers where she allegedly took the missing shirt. That was an offence and if she was found guilty she might expect a term of imprisonment.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 06, 1843]

 

Stockings, lace and a muff: The reluctant haberdasher and the fashionable shoplifter

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A rather brief entry today, as I have 40 exam scripts to mark!

In 1832 the ‘New Police’ force was still rather new. The public were probably getting used to seeing the ‘bluebottles’ on the streets, with their swallow-tailed coats and tall stovepipe hats. The individual victims of crime remained key to prosecutions however: the police largely acting as the old watch and parish constabulary had done, as a reactive force.

5300d2bf0b864dced8880d3c673cad3bOn May 11 (a Friday) Joanna Garth entered a haberdasher’s shop in Percy Street, Marylebone and bought a piece of lace for 2s 7d. Having made her purchase she then asked the shopman if she might have a look at some stockings, and some things. He obliged her and Joanna took a seat by the counter to examine the goods, but didn’t buy any of them.

The assistant had noted that she was ‘middle-aged’ and ‘fashionably-dressed’ and was carrying a muff. Others might tell me whether this was normal for this time of the year, but May can be cool out of the sun or perhaps it was on trend to carry such an accessory in the 1830s.

As he watched her the shopman noticed her pull a pair of the stockings into the muff and as she rose and made to leave the shop he challenged her. He found the stockings in the muff, and another pair balled up in her hand and, when he looked back to the chair she’d sat on, found a card of lace discarded by the chair leg which she’d possibly also been trying to steal.

The haberdasher’s assistant went to the door of the shop and called for a policeman. PC Hancock of S Division appeared and accompanied the woman to the nearest police station. She was charged at Marylebone Police Court on the 16 May with shoplifting at Harris’ premises where all this evidence was heard.

It was a pretty clear case but the haberdasher was reluctant to prosecute. Did he know Joanna? Was she a regular customer? Her lack of title suggests she was unmarried, was this an example of what the late Victorians termed kleptomania? Shoplifting by ‘respectable’ middle-class ‘ladies’ was not infrequently attributed to the supposed mental ‘weakness’ of the female sex, rather than being deemed ‘criminal’. Had Joanna been a working-class woman things might have been very different. Harris would have been quite likely to have wanted her prosecuted and punished but in this case he tried quite hard to have the case settled summarily and without penalty.

The magistrate was less keen to let it go however. He did let her leave his court on the promise she would return when requested, but set bail at the huge sum of £200. This in itself speaks to the wealth of the woman, an heiress perhaps, independently wealthy at least? £200 in 1832 is the equivalent of about £13,000 today so that gives you some idea of the level of bail the magistrate set. By comparison the goods she was accused of pilfering were worth about £9 in today’s money.

The case doesn’t seem to have made it to a jury trial and I’ve found no further mention of it at Marylebone so it is quite likely that Harris dropped his prosecution and settled the matter. The police were not obliged to press charges and there seems little to gain by anyone doing so. Joanna Garth was not the sort of offender that late Georgian society was concerned about or that the Metropolitan Police were created to combat. Hopefully she kept her ‘kleptomania’ under control after that and simply used her muff to warm her hands.

[from The Morning Post , Thursday, May 17, 1832]

A ‘fashionable’ young barmaid avoids prison in Lambeth

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Lambeth, c.1850

 

Charlotte White was a young lady who liked to look her best. Just like many today she tried to keep up with fashions and enjoyed buying new clothes and accessories. Unfortunately for Charlotte her earnings as a barmaid were hardly sufficient to keep her head above water, let alone allow herself the indulgences she craved. Although undoubtedly she worked hard behind the bar in the Horse & Groom in Lambeth, she needed a little extra to supplement her weekly wages.

Thomas Cook had employed her in April and presumably he had appreciated her looks and thought her  a suitable candidate to serve his customers and perhaps thought she might even attract some trade; he wouldn’t have been the first or last publican to employ a pretty face to bring in the punters.

But after 6 months or so he began to have some doubts about Charlotte and wondered if she was dipping into his till to fund her ever-changing wardrobe. He started to watch her more closely and when he was sure that his suspicions were correct he called on the police and asked them to investigate.

PC William Guest (62L) searched her rooms and found a deposit box. At first Charlotte said she had lost the keys and couldn’t open it for him. PC Guest persisted however,and on searching her person found the key and opened the box. Inside he discovered a bank savings books which showed a series of entries from August that revealed she had deposited £13 and then another £4 a week later. In addition one of Mr Cook’s shirt studs was also found in the box.

The policeman had found Charlotte’s key in a pocket in the dress she was wearing and the Lambeth Police Court was told that she had numerous dresses, all with numerous pockets. A more thorough search of these had uncovered a purse containing £1 16s in gold and silver coin. Her personal boxes were opened and these were apparently full of ‘the most elegant and expensive dresses’.

The magistrate asked Charlotte if she had anything to say in her defence but she remained silent. He remanded her for further examination and she was taken down. Charlotte reappeared on the 26th November, five days later. This time Mr Cook’s representative in court (Mr Child of Wire and Child solicitors) said his client wished to withdraw the charges. He told the court that ‘there were some circumstances connected to the case which induced his client to… take a favorable view of the matter’.

The justice commented that in his opinion there was little of substance that Charlotte could be charged with anyway, the theft of the stud was probably all there was, so he agreed. Mr Child agreed but asserted his client’s belief that Charlotte was at the very least guilty by intention of taking his money but he still wished, on account of her age and ‘all circumstances’ not to take it any further.

So Charlotte was released, and presumably ‘let go’ from her position. The court reporter described her as ‘fashionably dressed’ and having ‘highly respectable’ friends. Perhaps they offered to compensate Mr Cook and find a new place for Miss White. If so she was a very lucky young woman, many others would have found themselves on the streets after being dismissed from service and brought before the courts, regardless of whether a case could be proved or not. Hopefully Charlotte found a new path and just maybe, a new position in a dressmakers.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, November 21, 1851]