A ‘typical girl’ in the dock at Clerkenwell

shopassistant

In my seminar last week my students and I were discussing forms of property crime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of those we focused on was shoplifting, noting its increasing importance in contemporary discourse in the 1700s (as the number of shops in London grew and the emphasis on the display of goods made them more vulnerable to opportunistic thieves).

They were interested to note that women made up a more equal  proportion of defendants at the Old Bailey in shoplifting trials than they did, say, in highway robbery or burglaries.  Indirect thefts, such as shoplifting or pocket-picking, were much more likely to feature females or children than the direct and often violent or dangerous crimes of robbery and housebreaking or burglary.

We also looked at what shoplifters stole and at why female thieves mostly seemed to have filched items that fitted within their social sphere. Thus women took clothes, or linen and lace, lengths of materials, and ribbons. Men, by comparison, stole tools, money, and precious items such as watches. Women did take these as well, but images of female thieves with ribbons and lace tucked under their clothes are more common.

The explanation is straightforward: women took things they could use or easily get rid of. There was a huge market in secondhand clothes and materials into which thieves could ‘invest’ their loot. Suspicions might be raised by a woman walking through town with a bag of working-men’s tools but not by a basket of ribbons.

Mary Ann Stanniel was only 18 when she appeared before Mr D’Eyncourt at Clerkenwell Police court in November 1860 but she had already established an unwanted reputation as a ‘well-known shoplifter’. On this occasion she was charged with taking two samples of silk ribbon belonging to John Skinner a linen draper on the Pentonville Road.

Mary had entered Skinner’s shop with a friend and then engaged the shopkeeper in conversation in a classic distraction technique. They asked him to show them two completely different sorts of product and Skinner was on his guard. He’d been robbed before and spotted the attempted deception.

However, having two young women in his shop, each demanding to see different things at the same time he was hard pushed to keep his eyes on both of them. He called his wife to help and she provided the necessary extra pair of eyes. Soon afterwards she noticed that a piece of blue ribbon was missing. Mrs Skinner came round the counter and took hold of Mary Ann’s hand, turning it over to reveal a roll of ribbon. It wasn’t the blue one she’d lost, but it was theirs so the police were called.

The blue ribbon was missing so when PC Lillycrap (409A) arrived he took Mary Ann to the station and searched her. It seems that her friend had done a runner when Mary Ann had been pinched by the shopkeeper’s wife. No ribbon was found on Ann so the policeman came back to the shop to check again. After a quick search the ribbon was found on the floor, behind some other things, where the defendant had hastily dropped it.

PC Lillycrap told Mr D’Eyncourt that he had arrested Mary Ann before and that she’d been up before the bench at Westminster Police court on similar charges. Mary Ann had some support in court, in the form of a solicitor who urged the magistrate to deal with the matter summarily, saving her a longer spell in prison after a full jury trial. He promised that after she had served whatever time the justice felt was appropriate Mary Ann’s father would ‘take her home and look after her’.

Whether D’Eyncourt believed him or not he did as requested and sent the shoplifter to the house of correction for four months and told her she ‘was fortunate’ she hadn’t got longer. Let’s hope her father kept his promise.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 7, 1860]

A respectable ‘kleptomaniac’ is caught out at the Soho Bazaar

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The Soho Bazaar, c.1815

Mary Allen was almost certainly a pseudonym. The woman using this device was quite respectable and claimed to be protecting her ‘respectable friends’ from the disgrace of being associated with her.

‘Mary’ (as I am going to continue to call her) was arrested in November 1835 at the Soho Bazaar and charged with theft. She was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street by a police constable from St Anne’s station house having been given into custody by Ann Castle. who operated a stall at the bazaar.

Mrs Castle set out the facts of the case before Mr Chambers.

‘At about four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, as she was attending some Ladies who were at her stand, the prisoner  passed by; and, no doubt considering that her attention was occupied with the other Ladies, she laid hold of a muslin collar, thrust it into her muff, and walked hastily away to another part of the bazaar’.

It was a classic shoplifting ploy; to pinch an item quickly and calmly and hide it in a pocket, coat or, in this case, the large muff that women used to keep their hands warm in the colder months of the year.

However, ‘Mary’ had been seen and Ann Castle confronted her. At this the thief pleaded with her to let her go, thrusting the collar back to her. Ann was not in the mood for leniency and summoned a nearby police constable, who took her back the station.

Once there ‘Mary’ refused to give her name or address. She told the police she would rather ‘suffer the greatest punishments the law could inflict rather than say who she was’.

This was an example of what was to become a much more common occurrence in the nineteenth century; middle-class women caught for shoplifting presented the police and courts with a dilemma. All the demands of class deference and chivalry suggested that these female thieves should be treated differently from the ‘usual suspects’ who were routinely arrested, prosecuted and gaoled. Indeed, in the later 1800s the courts began to treat these ‘criminals’ as mad rather than bad, and society applied the term ‘kleptomania’  to them suggesting that they, as members of the ‘weaker’ sex, were unable to help themselves.

‘Mary’ however, was clearing helping herself to the goods on display at the Soho Bazaar. When she was searched at the station along with the collar the police found, ‘a package of twenty-two silk laces, a gilt thimble, a Prayer Book, with silver clasps, a jet bracelet, a jet necklace, a caddy-spoon, and some fancy toilet articles’ in her muff.

The bazaar itself was an unusual venture. Opened in 1815 it offered ‘respectable’ women an opportunity to display and sell items they had made themselves. So it was an early example of the craft markets we are familiar with today. So ‘Mary’ was not only stealing, she was stealing from her own class.

There were several other stallholders in court and one identified the laces as her own. Since the rest of the items remained unclaimed however, Mr Chambers said it would be necessary for the police to make other enquiries. The police inspector said he would do so and, additionally, said the police were also investigating thefts from the Pantheon Bazaar committed by a woman who fitted ‘Mary’s description. The Pantheon bazaar had existed much earlier, being built in the 1770s, although it was destroyed by fire in 1792. Samuel Smirke rebuilt it in 1833-34 so it must have just opened in time for ‘Mary’ to thieve from it.

The magistrate asked ‘Mary’ why she had committed the crime but she was unable to explain. ‘She could not tell what had induced her to disgrace herself in such a manner, except that she must have been mad at the time’, reported the press. In the end she was released but asked to reappear if others came forward to prosecute her.

This is a good example of how class-ridden the criminal justice could be in the 1800s. This was a fairly open and shut case of theft. We might sympathise with ‘Mary’ as someone possible suffering with some form of mental illness but that wasn’t why the court was gentle with her. It was entirely down to the fact that she was a member of the respectable middle class. If she had been a poor working-class woman the magistrate would have committed her for jury trial (where she would faced the possibility of being imprisoned or even transported for the crime) or, had he chosen to be lenient, sent her to the house of correction for a month or more.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 13, 1835]