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 deceptive haberdasher gets it on the chin for misleading the public

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Islington in the Victorian era

For many years before I became an academic historian I worked in retail, either running shops as a manager or serving in them as an assistant. It was hard work, mostly enjoyable because of the people I worked with and the majority of the customers I met. It was pressured, particularly on busy Saturdays and in the Christmas run-in, and I got a lost less free time than I do today. It was also considerably less well paid.

One of the areas of contention I remember concerned pricing. Customers would occasionally try and haggle over a price and were often on the look out for a ‘bargain’; so ‘Sales’ were always busy. Sometimes a customer would bring an item to the counter to pay for it only for myself or a colleague to realise that it had been mis-priced (meaning that the price advertised on the label was cheaper than the actual price). We would always apologise, occasionally sell it to them at the stated price anyway, and emphatically point out that under consumer law we were not obliged to sell anything at any price to anyone.

So I was interested by the following case from the Clerkenwell Police Court which arose from just such an encounter, but in 1842.

Mr Thomas Deacon, a ‘gentleman’ was strolling through Islington when his eye was caught by a ‘handsome shawl’ hanging on a door outside a habersdasher’s. Shops did have window displays in the 1800s but the tradition (begun in the 1700s) of displaying goods outside to entice passers-by in, clearly continued. In this instance it worked; since he shawl was labelled at 16s 6d (about £36 today) Mr Deacon decided to enter the shop and purchase it.

He enquired about the shawl and the shop assistant (‘shop man’ as they were called then)  offered to show him a section of others. No, he said, he wanted that one, which the assistant fetched. Deacon produced a sovereign to pay for it but was told this was not enough; the price of the item was in fact £1 13s (or £73). For a sovereign he would only get ‘half of it’.

Deacon was angry and remonstrated with the man. However, the shop man insisted he could not sell it to for less and so Deacon stormed out and went to the station house to bring a policeman. When he returned the owner of the shop, Mr Turner, was present. When he confirmed that his assistant had acted correctly Deacon lost his temper and ‘collared him’. At this Turner grabbed him, and threw him out of the shop.

This incident now escalated and Deacon summoned Turner for assaulting him. A few days later Turner ended up in the Clerkenwell court where Deacon’s interests were represented by a lawyer, a Mr Wakeling, while Turner hired a Mr Stoddard to defend him from the charge.

Having heard the evidence from both sides the magistrate, Mr Greenwood, said:

‘there was no law to prevent a man from labelling his goods at whatever price he sought fit, nor any law to compel the shopkeeper to sell the goods at the labelled price. The public, upon whom the deception was practised,’ he continued,’could best punish it’ (by withdrawing their custom I presume).

He dismissed the assault charge and everyone left. I doubt the experience did much for either man but it reminds us that our retail trading laws and regulations have been developing because of incidents such as this over hundreds of years.

Today our rights (as consumers) are protected by a number of laws but primarily by the Sale of Goods Act (1979). This requires retailers to meet certain conditions but it doesn’t protect us from the sort of ‘deception’ Mr Turner was accused of. This might seem unfair until you’ve worked in a shop. It is a fairly simple thing to switch a price label after all, so retailers need to retain the right not to part with something for less than its value, unless you choose to.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, May 6, 1842

Transport problems in London are nothing new it seems

In October 1877 the Morning Post’s review of the doings of the Metropolitan Police Courts included a number of references to incident on or involving public transport.

John Shaw appeared at Worship Street charged with stealing 5s from Selina Claridge. Ms. Claridge had been traveling on a tram and while she had felt ‘touches at her pocket’ had not suspected the ‘very gentlemanly’ passenger who sat next to her.

However, when she alighted from the tram and checked her pocket she missed her purse. She immediately returned to the tramcar but Shaw had disappeared. She soon found him loitering in a doorway and charged him with the theft, which he denied.

Shaw was arrested and when he was searched the exact sum she had lost was found on him (‘in the same coins’) as was a tram ticket.

Two other witnesses came forward to report thefts by Shaw and in the end the court remanded him but also advised inquiries be made into his mental state as he appeared to be no common thief but a ‘gentleman of large means’.

 

Meanwhile over at Marlbourough Street the magistrate was presented with on the conductors of the London General Company, John Perry. Perry had been complained of for loitering outside the premises of a haberdasher on on Oxford Street.

The shopkeeper, a Mr. Johnson, was clearly fed up with the number of ‘buses that stopped and waited for fares outside his business. He told the court that in ‘conseqience of the number of omnibuses that congregated at Regent’s Circus, Oxford-street, it was impossible for a carriage to come to his door for a greater portion of the day’. Most of his customers one imagines, arrived that way, rather than by public transport.

Not only was it hard for them to stop but when they did they were subject to abuse by the drivers of the omnibuses. A nearby tobacconist spoke in support of the haberdashers complaint and it certainly seems to have been a problem for the traders on the busy London street.

Two police inspectors now deposed that the ‘buses were allowed to stop at certain places (what we would now describe as ‘bus stops’, clearly not then marked) but ‘only long enough to set down or take up passengers’. They were not supposed to loiter waiting for business and the constables on the beat were there to regulate this and move them on. The justice suggested an extra policeman be detailed to help in this busy area and fined the conductor 2s 6d and an extra 2s in costs.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 10, 1877]