Charles Dickens celebrates the newspaper industry and its portrayal of ‘modern’ British society

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Given that surviving archival records of the Metropolitan Police courts of the Victorian period are very few are far between for the past few years I’ve spent a considerable amount of my time reading nineteenth-century newspapers. While I stick mostly to the ‘police intelligence’ it is impossible not to occasionally get distracted by the other news stories they covered. Living, as we do, in a society where news is now 24/7 and delivered instantly via tiny super powerful computers that fit in our pockets, it is hard to imagine sometimes how important the  Victorian press was to the dissemination of news and ideas to our ancestors. So, in a break from the norm today I want to highlight a speech that was reported in 1862 in the Daily News by none other than Charles Dickens, arguably England’s greatest ever novelist.

In May 1862 the Newsvendors Benevolent Institution celebrated their 23rdanniversary with a banquets at the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street (below right). Freemasons'_TavernThis is not the current Freemason’s Hall which is just further up the street but was on the site of what is now the Connaught Hotel. Regardless, it was a grand affair and with Dickens in the chair, no doubt an entertaining evening was had by all.

The famous author and public speaker opened by praising the man that had deputized for him the year before, Wilkie Collins. In 1861 Dickens had toothache and so had handed the chair to his friend but now expressed some regrets so well had his fellow novelist performed. ‘If I ever find myself obliged to provide a substitute again’, Dickens declared, ‘they may implicitly rely on my sending them the most speechless man of my acquaintance!’.

He then went, at some length, to list the ways in which the newspaper covered the whole gamut of life in Victorian Britain and the world. He did this by imagining himself peering over the shoulder of a reader, just as many of us will have done on a tube train or bus, trying to catch a story that has made the headlines.

The newspapers, Dickens noted, tell us who is born, who married, and who has died, and how. Other points and events in our lives are also recorded, especially if they are the lives of royalty or the famous. I’m struck by the fact that just the other week a baby was born in London and this made the news, even though millions of babies are born every day, all over the world. This baby was special of course, because Archie Windsor was the son of a prince and his new American born spouse.

Dickens noted that it was in the newspaper that the reader discovered that ‘there are great fleets bound to all the ports of the  world’ and here that they would find what these fleets carried, what space they had, where you might purchase a ticket to travel on them, and even find out what the ships were made of. Here were adverts for almost anything you could want (and many things you certainly wouldn’t need):

Still glancing over the shoulder of my newsman, I find I am offered all kinds of houses, lodgings, clerks, servants, and situations which I can possibly or impossibly want. I learn to my intense gratification that I need never grow old, that I may always preserve the juvenile bloom of complexion, that if I ever become ill it is entirely my own fault, that I may have no more grey hair. If I have any complaint and want brown cod liver oil or a Turkish bath I am told where I can get it, and that if I want an income of £7 a week I have only to send for it enclosing half-a-crown’s worthy of postage stamps’.

Along with the adverts (spurious and genuine) Dickens cited the political news that the papers reported. Here, he said, you could find out what the Home Secretary had to say about the ‘last outrage, the last railway accident, or the last mine explosion’, only to be told that the minster of state had said that ‘he knew nothing of the occurrence beyond what he had read in the newspapers’!

Dickens himself had reported from the law courts before he had ‘made it’ as an author of popular stories. He told his captive audience at the Freemason’s Tavern that the reporting of the police courts of the capital would inform the reader that:

if I have a propensity to indulge, I may very cheaply bite off a human being’s nose, but that if I presume to take off from a butcher’s window the nose of a dead calf or pig, it will cost me exceedingly dear’.

Once the laughter had settled down he went on to add:

and also find that if I allowed myself to be betrayed into the folly of killing an inoffensive tradesman upon his own doorstop, that little incident will not affect the testimonials to my character, but that I shall be described as a most amiable young man, and above all things, remarkable for the singular inoffensiveness of my character and disposition’.

Dickens was an astute observer of course and in many of the reports of court cases the defendants are described in flattering terms despite the crimes they are accused of, especially if they are drawn from the ranks of ‘respectable’ society.

He then went on to list the theatrical and other arts news that could be found in the papers, even though he noted that it was hardly ‘news’ at all. He ended with a tour around foreign and international news suggesting that the London press reported incidents and events that in some countries (he mentioned Japan as an example) would never be reported. This echoes today’s world news  where British and European readers may well be better informed of what is happening in some closed societies (like China, Saudi Arabia or North Korea) than the people living there.

News, after all, is power.

Charles Dickens finished his speech with a toast to the men (and ladies) of the institution who raised funds for those vendors who fell on hard times. The evening raised around £100 for the charity which would be used to provide pensions for the men who sold the newspapers that carried all of this news to the public. £100 in 1862 amounts to about  £6,000 today, and so it was a significant sum of money.

I’m struck by the comparison we might make with the way Dickens characterized the reach and variety of the newspaper in 1862 and today’s internet or ‘world wide web’. Our first instinct now if we want to find something out is to reach for our phones, tablets or PCs and to ‘Google it’. In seconds we find an answer (if not always ‘the’ answer) to our question.

But for all this technology our desire to know and understand the world around us is much the same. Moreover the Internet has really only replaced print news as the vehicle to inform, deceive, manipulate and exploit our desires and prejudices. Had the Victorians invented the worldwide web they would have probably have used it for all the things we use it for.

Once again I am left wondering just how ‘modern’ we really are.

[from Daily News, Wednesday, May 21, 1862]

A foolish young man amongst the ‘roughs’: police and protest in late Victorian London

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This morning my History and Criminology undergraduates sit their exam on my third year module on the Whitechapel murders. The module uses the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case as a prism through which to explore a number of themes in the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. We look at the murders, think about the representations of ‘Jack’, of the mythmaking that surrounds the case, and consider policing, prostitution, poverty and popular culture (among other things). I am considering creating an online version of the module that the public might be able to sign up, so do send me an email if you think this is the sort of thing that might interest you.

One of the events we cover is ‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1887 when a demonstration in Trafalgar Square was broken up by police and elements of the military on the order of Sir Charles Warren, the chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Many people were injured and two or three killed as the police charged protestors. It was a mixed day for Warren who was castigated in the radical and popular press but praised by establishment organs such as The Times. He’d acted firmly following a debacle in 1886 when demonstrators had run amok in Pall Mall, smashing shops and the smart West End gentleman’s clubs that were situated there.

Demonstrations of all sorts happened in the 1880s: for Irish Home rule, or socialism, against unemployment, or for free trade – all brought hundreds and thousands of people onto the streets. The 1880s was a turbulent decade or poverty and austerity, and hundreds slept rough in the streets, squares and parks of the capital. Police soused the benches in Trafalgar Square to  deter the homeless from using them as beds and local residents demanded action to clear the area of the unwanted ‘residuum’ or ‘dangerous classes’.

There must have been some sort of protest or demonstration in Trafalgar Square close to May Day 1888 because two men appeared at Bow Street Police court on charges connected to disturbances there. First up was Alexander Thompson, a ‘respectably dressed youth’ who was accused by the police of being ‘disorderly’. PC 82A deposed that on Saturday evening (5 May) at about 6 o’clock Thompson was being arrested by two sergeants when a group of ‘roughs’ tried to affect an impromptu rescue.

According to the police witness Thompson was egging them on  by ‘groaning and hooting’ and some stones were thrown at the officers. As the constable tried to hold back the crowd Thompson lashed out at him, striking him on the shoulder. His escape was prevented by another PC who rushed in to help but it was devil of job to get him to the station house. The young man had enough money to be represented by a lawyer, a Mr E Dillon Lewis, who secured bail of £5 for his appearance at a later date.

Next to step into the dock was Walter Powell and he was charged similarly with disorderly behaviour. Powell had been selling ‘a weekly periodical’ in the square. He’d drawn a crowd of ‘roughs’ about him and the policeman who arrested him said that while he couldn’t hear what he was saying it was clear he was addressing them, and possibly exhorting them to some sort of nefarious action. The police sergeant from A Division told Powell to go home and when he refused, or at least did not comply, he took him into custody. He’d been locked up overnight and all day Sunday and for Mr Vaughan, the magistrate presiding, that was punishment enough. He told him he was foolish but let him go with a flea in his ear.

Hopefully today my students will not have been ‘foolish’ and will have prepared themselves for the 90-minute examination I’ve set them. They have to write one essay (from four choices) and analyse  one of two contemporary sources. If they’ve done their revision and paid attention all year I should get some interesting papers to mark. I wish them all the best of luck, but hope they don’t need it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 08, 1888]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

Two deserters and a lad that upset an apple cart

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Three prisoners appeared at the North London Police court in early May 1899 and each of their cases was affected by new legislation, passed the previous year. According to the reporter from The Standard this was the Criminals Act of 1898 but I’m struggling to find the exact piece of legislation referred to.

1898 did see the passing of the Criminal Evidence Act which allowed defendants to testify (and which allowed wives, for example, to give evidence against husbands) but I don’t believe that is the act in question. That act was mostly concerned with the veracity of witness testimony but in the report I’ve selected today the magistrate was more concerned with discriminating between ‘habitual and casual’ criminals.

None of the prisoners were named but two of them were accused of deserting their wives and children, leaving them chargeable to the parish (and thus making them a burden on the ratepayers). Mr Cluer, the sitting magistrate, made a point of saying that while he intended to send both men to prison this was a much ‘more lenient punishment than probably they deserved’.

They owed money for the non-payment of maintenance to their wives and that was why they would be locked up but even then they would probably enjoy a better lifestyle behind bars than their wives and children and even by comparison to many of the poorer ratepayers in the area who lived honestly. He was clearly disgusted that he couldn’t throw the proverbial book at them.

The third prisoner mentioned in this report was a young man who had upset a costermonger’s cart and assaulted a policeman. As a result he’d been charged with a breach of the peace. On this occasion however, the police officer who had had his coat torn by the young man’s act ‘of ruffiansim’ was in forgiving mood and have the lad a good character.

In consequence of this the magistrate said he would treat him as a ‘second-class misdemeanant’ and that while he would also go to gaol, it would be for a shorter period and without some of the attached conditions (presumably hard labour) that he would have handed down had he ‘absolute control’ of the law.

So it seems that this new law tempered the ability of magistrates to exercise discretion and signaled another turn in the longer move towards allowing more and more offences to be dealt with summarily and with more lenient sentences. Arguably this process began in the 1840s and 1850s with Summary Jurisdiction Acts that removed petty thieves and younger offenders from the jury courts. It continued into the twentieth century and our own 21st. If someone can send me a link to details of the Criminals Act (1898) I will be grateful.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 2, 1899]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here

‘A great nuisance’ but a dedicated body of men and women. How the Salvation Army got their message to the people

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Yesterday’s blog concerned the Salvation Army with two of their ‘soldiers’ being warned about annoying a local man with the ‘infernal din’ they made playing music outside his house on a Sunday. That was in 1896 when the organization was beginning to establish itself in late Victorian society. It was still an object of suspicion for some, and ridicule for others but it was well on its way to being widely recognized as the charitable religious body it is regarded as today.

William Booth had founded the East London Christian mission in 1865 and adopted the name ‘The Salvation Army’ in 1878. Booth and his wife Catherine (pictured below right) were Methodists and their intention was to bring religion and abstinence from alcohol to the poor of the East End. Unusually for the time Catherine (and all women in the mission) was able to preach on the same terms as her husband. In the early 1880s the Salvation Army began to expand its operations overseas, opening branches in the USA, Ireland and Australia and of course their success was in no small part due to their ability to promote the Army and to as many possible ‘volunteers’ as possible.

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They did this by public meetings and marches, all accompanied by brass bands made up of members, a military system of organization (with “General’ Booth at the head), and by selling their weekly paper, The War Cry. This was sold on the streets and in public houses and, as this case from 1882 shows, this could sometimes bring them into dispute with the local constabulary.

Thomas Dawson was an unlikely looking occupant of the dock at the City Police court. He was described as being about 30 years of age, ‘delicate looking’ and wearing the uniform of the Salvation Army. He had been summoned for ‘obstructing the footway in Liverpool Street’ while attempting to hawk copies of the Army’s publication.

Appearing for the City of London police chief inspector Tillcock said that there had been a growing problem with Sally Army men and women standing on the streets and drawing crowds. It was ‘a great nuisance’ he stated and caused by the ‘peculiar actions and dress’ of those involved. Perhaps the public was curious and stopped to hear what the soldiers of Booth’s army had to say; I suspect some stopped to harangue them as misguided or laugh at their costumes.

PC 934 City had tried to move Dawson on several times but each time the man had simply returned to the same position and carried on his business. When challenged about it in court Dawson declared that he had just as much right to sell the paper as anyone else and was causing no more obstruction than a Punch and Judy show. He felt the constable was picking on him because he didn’t like the message the Army was keen to broadcast but he wasn’t about to stop for anyone. The Salvation Army was, he stated in court, ‘something they wanted everyone to know about’.

Sir Robert Carden, the presiding magistrate, found for the police and begged to differ regarding the merits of an organization that took a doctrinal position that differed from the established, Anglican, church. Regardless of the virtues of the War Cry or the Army’s message he couldn’t allow the obstruction of City roads and pavements so he fined him 26d plus costs and warned him that if he came before him on a similar charge again he would double the fine. Dawson asked the justice what the alternative to paying the fine was.

‘Three days imprisonment’ he was told. He thanked the magistrate and was taken into custody. Perhaps he preferred to suffer some gaol time rather than reducing the income of the Army. If so he was a very dedicated soldier for the cause and that probably tells us all we need to know about the eventual success of the Salvation Army. Whatever we might think of it, or the people that sign up as new recruits, it was men and women like Thomas Dawson that  helped ensure that William and Catherine Booth’s vision prospered and developed into the global charity it is today.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, April 29, 1882]

‘Getting away with it’ in Victorian London: two cautionary tales from Marlborough Street Police court

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Here are two theft charges, heard at the Marlborough Street Police court in 1889, neither of which resulted in convictions or further action. There must have been huge numbers of pre-trial hearings which were resolved at summary level and yet we have very few surviving documentation about this important tier of the criminal justice system. There are a handful of late nineteenth-century minute books for the Thames Police office, a few for Bow Street a little earlier, and then most of what survives is for the early twentieth century.

Which means, unfortunately, that historians of crime are perhaps overly reliant  on the reporting of the summary (magistrate) process by the Victorian press. I say ‘unfortunately’ because the newspapers were, understandably, selective. In each of the daily reports from Thames, Bow Street, Marylebone or the several other metropolitan police courts the editors pick one, perhaps two cases out of dozens that came before them. In a week a police court magistrate would hear hundreds of cases but only a dozen or fewer would be written up for the newspapers’ readership.

Historians of the eighteenth-century justice system are well aware that for some periods of the 1700s the publishers of the Old Bailey Proceedings (which recounted trials that took place at what was to become the Central Criminal Court) often omitted cases which ended in acquittal for fear of demonstrating to offenders that there were successful ways to avoid conviction. One of the purposes in reporting trials of criminals was show that crime did not pay so anything that suggested you could ‘get away with it’ was unhelpful at best.

So I wonder why these two cases were the ones chosen by the editor of the Standard newspaper in April 1889 to represent the business of the Marlborough Street court?

First Clara Newton was accused of stealing £3 and 3from a man she’d met in Oxford Street. Clara appeared in court dressed fashionably and wearing a red hat with a green feather. One imagines she cut quite a dash, and this might explain the reporter’s interest in her. She described herself as a barmaid, 21 years of age, who lived on the Euston Road. On April 22 1889 she met Captain Torry in the street and he invited her to have a drink with him.

The pair sat in a public house enjoying each other’s company until it was time to leave. Torry (rather ungallantly) ‘declined to see her home’ but did give her the money to take a cab. Now, I wonder whether he was hoping to extend the evening or perhaps even thought Clara was something other than a barmaid. Who knows?

She accepted his offer of a cab and asked to be shown to a waiting room where she could rest comfortably before the cab arrived. The captain told her where to go and was about to leave himself when she asked him to wait in the pub, presumably to ensure that she caught the cab safely. He agreed.

However, some moments afterwards he happened to ‘peep out of the bar door’ and saw her walking quickly away from the pub, and not towards the waiting room. Instinctively he checked his pockets and found his purse was missing. He grabbed his hat and followed afterwards, losing her briefly and having to ask a cab driver where she’d gone.

Torry caught up with her on Hanover Street and handed her over to the police. It was about 12 at night and the constable that took her into custody told Mr Hannay at Marlborough Street that she’d been searched at the station but the captain’s purse was not on her. She did have money – 2 sovereigns and 4s in silver to be exact – but none of the coins matched those that the captain thought he’d lost.

While there was a clear suspicion about Clara there was no real proof and so she was discharged. This result brought a smattering of applause from the court so either her friends were there to support her or the public felt that the captain was a ‘blackguard’ who had got what he deserved.

Next up was John Helmslie Hunt who was charged with trying to defraud a Piccadilly saddler named Garden. Hunt, using the name ‘Captain J.H. Hunt’ and giving an address in Wotton-under-Edge  (in Gloucestershire) had entered the saddler’s workshop in August 1888 and asked to purchase a holster flask. He was given the flask on credit since he appeared genuine and promised to pay the following day.

He never came back however. Not long afterwards inquiries made by Mr Garden ascertained that Hunt had pawned the flask on the Hampstead Road and had then disappeared. In fact he’d traveled to Canada where he’d stayed for several months before returning to London in the spring of 1889. In his absence a warrant had been issued for his arrest and in April the police caught up with him and thus he too was put in the dock before Mr Hannay on the same day as Clara.

It took a while for the magistrate to hear the case against Hunt but in the end he came to the conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to send him for trial. Quite simply he doubted whether a jury would convict him so there was no public interest in sending him to the ‘Bailey. He too was released.

Both cases were unusual or at least ‘interesting’ but both showed that con men and women could defraud the unwary or steal from the distracted. Perhaps that was why the editor of the Standard deemed them suitable material for his daily review of the business of the police courts: they were there to warn his readership to take more care of their property and not to be fooled by people who looked genuine but were anything but.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 24, 1889]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books in June this year. You can find details here:

‘A child having been stolen the detectives were looking for its clothes, not its body!’ The police and press criticism in Victorian Islington

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The police are never far from criticism by the media in this country. In the late twentieth century there has been widespread condemnation of their handling of the Miners Strike, the Peace Convoy near Stonehenge, the tragedy at Hillsborough 30 years again this week, and the murder of Stephen Lawrence. We can add to that the botched investigation into the serial murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe in West Yorkshire, the ‘kettling’ of student protesters, various deaths in police custody, and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005.

The nineteenth-century police was far from immune to newspaper criticism; indeed from the very creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 sections of the press leapt at every opportunity to pour scorn on them or expose their inefficiencies. The police represented – for some at least – an imposition on the freedom and the wallet of decent and respectable Britons. In London and in many midlands and northern towns the police became a symbol of an ever more oppressive state as they were deployed to prevent protests against the hated Poor Law.

But it is often the ‘little things’ that annoy the public just as much and it seems from this anti-police report in The Era from 1870 that it was their actions against publicans that got under the skin of middle-class newspaper editors. The licensing laws were an easy target because they seemingly unnecessary imposed rules on people who were doing ‘northing wrong’.  As The Era put it the police’s purpose seemed to be little more than:

annoying respectable Licensed Victuallers and their customers under the colourable pretence of seeing that men who have a large stake in their property are not jeopardizing it by evading the law and encouraging bad characters’.

In other words the police were interfering unnecessarily in the lives of business men and women and it might have been better if the police concentrated on catching ‘real criminals’, rather than the odd landlord who stayed open after hours or served alcohol on a Sunday. Today we hear very similar complaints about the police, especially from grumpy motorists pulled over for speeding.

In 1870 The Era opted to illustrate its point by reference to a child abduction that the local police (in this case Islington’s Y Division) quite spectacularly (in the opinion of the paper) failed to investigate properly.

When Mrs Chinnery (the wife of a respectable Horney Road tradesman) required a new domestic servant she approached the Poor Law authorities. They found her a widow named Mary O’Connor who happily swapped the workhouse for her new live-in role and, at first at least, she pleased her new mistress and seemed very happy to have this new chance in life. Things soured however when she was unable to visit her daughter (who lived in an orphanage in Kensington) because she’d not finished her duties at home in time.

That was Sunday 3 April and on the following Monday when her mistress sent her out on an errand Mary took Mrs Chinnor’s 18 month old son with her.

She never came back.

Mrs Chinnor ‘naturally alarmed’ went to the police who issued a description of the servant and the infant child. However, despite the best efforts of the ‘active and intelligent Police of Y Division’ (as the press reported it) neither the woman nor the baby could be found. Then, a week later on the 11 April one of Mrs Chinnor’s suplliers ran into Mary in the street. Knowing that she was a fugitive she made a citizen’s arrest, but not without a struggle. She fought with the servant for twenty minutes before any policemen arrived and then they struggled again to ward off a large crowd that wanted to string the child abductor up on the nearest lamppost.

Meanwhile the poor little boy was still missing and despite the efforts of the division’s detectives no one could find him. No one that is until he turned up in the care of the Islington workhouse. In fact the infant had been there for a day and half, having been found – by the police – on the doorstep of the local police station. The baby was almost naked, swaddled in a cloth, and not dressed as the mother had described it in ‘its pelisse and hat’. The police didn’t recognize it nor, seemingly, did they cross check one inquiry with another. Mary had simply taken the child out of spite but thought better of it and left it where she knew it would be safe.

The Era was scathing:

There’s intelligence – there’s activity of intellect; a child having been stolen the detectives were looking for its clothes, not its body!

‘’Where was the child found? On the steps of Islington Police-station; and though the intelligent and active officers of that Division had circulated a description of the child to all other Metropolitan Police-stations  they had had never thought of examining it to see whether it had the markes [sic] described’ by its mother.

All’s well that ends well of course and mother and child were reunited safely but Mrs Chinnor brought a complaint against the servant to Clerkenwell Police court. Mr Cooke – the magistrate presiding – expressed his ‘astonishment at the intelligence displayed’ by the police. For the press it was an opportunity to comment on the inefficiency of policing in London and to reinforce the opinion of its members that resources were being deployed in the wrong areas.

The paper didn’t bother to say what happened to Mary O’Connor but I imagine a cold prison cell awaited her, which would have meant her daughter would have waited even longer for that visit.

[from The Era, Sunday, April 17, 1870]

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]