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]

A victory for William Stead or just another victim of male lust?

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On Saturday I left you with the unfinished case of Louisa Hart who was accused at Marylebone Police court, of the abduction of a young girl for the purposes of child prostitution. The hearing was one of the first to result from the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 after a sensational campaign by the leading journalist of the day, William Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette.

On the 8 February 1886 Louisa Hart was remanded in custody so that an investigation by CID could be further pursued. On the following Tuesday (16 February) Hart was back before the magistrate flanked by her solicitor (a Mr T. Duerdin Dutton) to hear a prosecution brought this time by the Treasury. She was described as being 21 years of age and residing at 32 Fulham Palace Road. The charge was that she had ‘unlawfully procured two young girls of reputable character, aged twelve and thirteen respectively, for immoral purposes’.

Florence Richardson was again called to give evidence, this time in person, and she recounted her experience of visiting Mrs Hart with her friend Rosie Shires in the summer of 1885. This account had a little more detail than the one I reported on Saturday as Florence described some of the events that had occurred:

Having had tea with Mrs Hart Rosie and Florence ‘went downstairs to a back room furnished as a bedroom. They washed their hands and presently an old gentleman came in’.

He spoke to the girls but she couldn’t remember what he’d said. Soon afterwards though both girls undressed and then things happened which were said in court but not written up or published by the Daily News’ reporter. Mrs Hart gave Florence a half-sovereign and Rosie 10s, adding 3s 6for their cab fare home to Holloway. Florence returned on the next Saturday and the same man was there and the same thing happened again.

It was an awful experience for Florence who cried bitterly in the witness box, especially when she was being cross-examined by Mr Dutton. She was being asked about her family, her withdrawal from school, and her sister, but she pleaded with the bench that she had nothing more say having already  ‘brought sufficient disgrace on her family’.

The next witness was Sophia Shires (22) of Spencer Road in Holloway. Rosie was her daughter and was not yet 13 years old. She’d found a letter (form Mrs Hart) in her daughter’s pocket and had contacted the police. Again she was cross-examined with doubt being thrown on her morality with regards to her daughter. Had she been aware of what Rosie was involved with? Had she been complicit?

This chimed with the case of Eliza Armstrong, the 13 year-old girl that William Stead had bought for £5 as the centerpiece of his ‘Maiden Tribute’ exposé. It was Mrs Armstrong’s strong reaction to the idea that she had ‘sold’ her daughter into prostitution that helped bring Stead and his accomplice Rebecca Jarrett before an Old Bailey judge and jury in the previous year.

Rosie was not in court and her mother clearly wanted to spare her the trauma that Florence was going through but Mr De Rutzen, the magistrate, insisted. The case was adjourned for a few days and Louisa Hart again remanded in custody. Meanwhile Mr Mead, the Treasury solicitor, muttered darkly that there had already been attempts to interfere with some of his witnesses. Powerful forces supported brothels and child prostitution just as they had opposed the attempted to pass the legislation that was at the heart of this prosecution. Some members of the elite strongly believed they had a right to prey on the children of the poor to satisfy their carnal desires.

During the course of the following week it emerged that Louisa Hart’s husband, Ben, was possibly the real power behind the relationship. The Pall Mall Gazette noted that when Louisa had been searched at Paddington police station she had told her female searcher that Ben Hart had married her when she was just 15 years old. It was against her will, she said, and it was him that had been the driving force in setting up what was described as ‘a child’s brothel’ in Markham Square.

Louisa Hart was back before Mr De Rutzen on 2 March. The same evidence was repeated but with some clarifications. Rosie was there this time and gave her version of the events in the house. She described the gentleman there as ‘middle aged’ and was clear that she had been asked her age, and ‘Florry’ asked hers. The prosecution was trying to establish that the girls were underage and that Mrs Hart (and the mysterious unmanned pedophile) knewthey were underage. She later added that on another occasion at the house she clearly remembered Mrs Hart insisting she tell the old gentleman that she was over 16, despite her knowing that she wasn’t.

This last point seemed to knock the defense solicitor somewhat and he asked for an adjournment for a week. The magistrate allowed this and again remanded the prisoner. A week later a much shorter hearing ended with Louisa being fully committed to take her trial at the Old Bailey.

That trial took place on 3 May 1886 and Louisa Hart was accused and convicted of ‘feloniously aiding and assisting a man unknown in carnally knowing Rosie Shires, a girl under the age of 13’. That was all the details the Old Bailey Proceedings recorded apart from Hart’s sentence, which was five year’s penal servitude. She served just over three years, being released on license in August 1889 and listed on the habitual criminals register. She died ten years later at the age of just 34. What happened to Rosie and Florence is unknown. The man that abused them seems to have got away scot-free as did Louisa’s husband Ben.

[from The Daily News, Wednesday 17 February, 1886; Pall Mall Gazette, Wednesday, 24 February 1886; The Standard, Wednesday, 3 March, 1886]

The late Victorian magistracy knew how to deal with sexual assault when they saw it

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Dalston Junction station c.1905 (about 8 years after the events recounted below took place) 

Our society is quite rightly agitated about sexual assault and misconduct. There has been a well documented campaign about sexual harassment and worse which as touched the television and film industry, politics, professional sports, and even charities. I suspect we have not heard the end of this and that the empowerment of women (and men) via the sharing of stories of abuse will result in many more industries and ares of public and private life being exposed to accusations of bad behaviour, sexual misconduct and rape.

It seems to me that the abuse of women, men and vulnerable children by those having positions of power and influence is endemic in modern society and until some prominent people are very publicly made to pay the consequences of this we are unlikely to see things improve. Sadly, of course, none of this is very ‘new’ and men (and it is usually men) have been getting away with sexual harassment for centuries.

However, not everyone got away with it and in some circumstances – notably when the abuser was a member of a lower social class than his victim – the Victorian courts were prepared to act to defend the defenceless. Even when these distinctions were not obvious the Police Court magistrates could often be relied upon to make a stand.

Florence Day was a domestic servant. On Tuesday 17 March 1897 she was travelling on the North London Railway between Dalston Junction and Broad Street in a third class carriage. It was the day before St Patrick’s Day  and the carriage was also being used by three Irishmen, one of whom took it upon himself to impose himself upon the young servant girl.

As soon as the train moved off Morris Deerey, a cattleman, began to speak to her. Florence was not interested and move her seat to get away from him. He’d been drinking and he and his friends were probably quite drunk. Undeterred Morris rose and follow her, sitting down opposite the girl.

Again he tried to engage her in conversation and when she ignored him he moved his muddy boot across and lifted her skirt. This was not only an invasion of space it was a sexual assault in the context of Victorian attitudes towards the female gender. Even today it would be considered as such.

When the train pulled in to Broad Street Florence, with the help of a fellow passenger who had seen everything that occurred, had Deerey taken into custody. She went to Moorgate Station and was examined by a female ‘searcher’ (who  I imagine was employed by the railways to search women brought in accused of picking pockets).  She confirmed that there was mud on the servant’s stockings and the whole case sent before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court.

Deerey denied the accusation against him and produced his two fellow cattlemen to back him up. Both admitted to being drunk and claimed that Deerey’s foot had got accidentally entangled with the girl’s dress. William Holloway had acted to support Florence and had been watching the men warily since they’d boarded the train at Chalk Farm. He confirmed Florence’s story and dismissed the friends’ version of events.

Alderman Newton had heard enough. Bad behaviour from the working classes was meat and drink to him; drunken and loutish conduct by the Irish was particularly to be condemned. He told the listening press and public that:

‘the traveling public must be protected, especially unprotected females’.

He sent Deerey to prison for 14 days hard labour meaning that he missed the St Patrick’s Day celebrations that year. ‘Poor Paddy’, as the Dubliners (and the Pogues) once sung.

[from The Standard , Thursday, March 18, 1897]