Two girls go ‘a thieving’ in a long lost Strand arcade

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The Lowther Arcade, Strand 

If you are familiar with Piccadilly in central London then no doubt you are familiar with its grand arcades. Arcades like this used to exist in many British cities but few retain the grandeur of those near the Royal Academy and Fortnum and Mason’s on Piccadilly. In the 1840s London had a similarly elegant arcade on the Strand, now long lost (being demolished in 1904 to make room for Coutts Bank).

The Lowther Arcade was praised by John Tallis in London Street Views as:

‘short, but for beauty will vie with any similar building in the kingdom; its architecture is chaste and pleasing; its shops well supplied, tastefully decorated, and brilliantly illuminated at night. It forms a pleasant lounge either in the sultry heat of summer or the biting cold of winter’.

It was very popular with small children because at one end there was first a science exhibition and later a puppet show and other ‘amusements’. It housed just 24 shops, but all ones of the finest quality and while such shops attracted customers with deep pockets they were also a magnet for thieves.

In early July 1846 Mary Anne Gordon and Anne Brown were brought up before the Bow Street magistrate charged with shoplifting in the arcade. They’d been remanded for the past week while the the case was looked into and witnesses found.

Gordon was represented in court by a lawyer (a Mr Woolf) but Brown was on her own. The case was brought by a Mr West, who ran a shop in the arcade with his wife. He told Mr Jardine (the magistrate) that the young women had approached his shop while his wife was serving a customer. Gordon had picked up a brooch, brought it out to the door, examined it and then thrown it on the ground. West, who was stood outside, remonstrated with her and she moved away.

It was a classic distraction, because while West rebuked Gordon the other thief entered the shop and pocketed some items. Realising what had happened West set off in pursuit but it took him awhile to find them because they’d split up. When he did he saw a brooch in the hands of Anne Brown and called the beadle over to arrest her. A fight broke out as the women tried to escape but between them West and the beadle managed to take them into custody.

Mrs West was cross-examined by Gordon’s lawyer and the justice and she floundered a bit. She said she couldn’t be sure she’d seen Gordon or Brown take anything at all, nor was she completely sure of their identity because they were dressed very differently when they’d come into the shop. Shoplifters did often ‘dress up’ to ‘go a thieving’ in the nineteenth century, especially women. If they looked like any other ‘respectable’ customer they were much less likely to attract attention and suspicion.

In the end Mr Jardine decided that there was insufficient evidence to send Mary Anne Gordon for trial but Brown was not so lucky; she was committed for trial at the next Middlesex Sessions where she would have to take her chances with the jury.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, July 02, 1846]

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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 deceptively simple tale of lingerie, scandal, and theft

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If one of the aims of late Victorian press was to provide some titillation for their readers over breakfast then this tale, from the end of 1888 (a year which we might consider to have had more than enough sensation), certainly fits the bill. It concerns female criminality, exotic foreigners in London, underwear, and the hint of sexual scandal.

When Maria Becherette appeared before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street she commanded the attention of the court and the reporter from Lloyd’s Weekly. She was 23 years old, spoke English with a German accent, and was fashionably well dressed. She gave no address or occupation but nor was she pressed to do so by the magistrate.

Maria was accused of a number of thefts from West End stores, including Liberty’s and Lewis & Allenby in Regent Street. Her modus operandi was simple but effective. On the 14 November she spent two hours at Liberty’s and, having finally selected a number of items of ladies’ underwear, she arranged to have them delivered on account. Giving her name as ‘Lady Coencerl’ she asked for the goods to be sent to the Bath Hotel in Piccadilly.

At Messrs. Lewis & Allenby she had done similarly on the day before; this time giving the name ‘Lady Gorskey’ and directing the items to be delivered to the Continental Hotel. On both occasions after she had left the shop assistants discovered that several expensive items were missing. Mlle. Becherette it seems was a sophisticated shoplifter.

She might have got away with it as well had she not pushed her luck. In the 15 November she was seen in Regent Street by one of Liberty’s staff, who alerted a concierge at the store and set off to follow her. The assistant, Mrs Elizabeth Nicholls, had served the thief and tried to keep her in her sights with the intention of finding where she went. The young German was too alert however, and spotted that she had a tail. She hailed a cab and was about to escape when the concierge leapt into the hansom with her and told the driver to take them both to Marlborough Mews police station.

There she said she was a governess and had recently arrived from Vienna, and denied the accusations of shoplifting. She was charged and presented at Marlborough Street where she was remanded on more than one occasion (for the police to investigate) and then brought up again at the end of the year. In court before Mr Newton Maria cut a sad figure. She stood in the dock with tears in her eyes as the prosecution was presented by Mr Humphreys.

As he now explained that there were allegedly multiple other similar cases against her she broke down and sobbed, finally admitting her crimes. She told the magistrate that while she had stolen the underwear it was ‘not for her own benefit but for the benefit of “the gentleman” she had been living with at Queenborough’.

Before she could go on to add that something the justice stopped her, perhaps mindful that she might reveal his name or add to the implication that the underwear in question was part of some elaborate sexual fetish. Mr Newton remanded her again so that she could, he suggested, give whatever information she had to the police. It might help her defence by mitigating her crime, but it would serve no one for it to be heard publicly.

On the 29 December she was brought back up into court to be dealt with by the magistrate. Mr Newton had presumably decided that despite the relative seriousness of her crimes (in stealing expensive items on several occasions and giving false names each time) it was best to try her summarily. This avoided any further public scrutiny of  the case or her motivations. She was denied the opportunity to name and shame her mysterious ‘gentleman’  or to use her charm on a jury of middle-case men. Instead she was sent to prison for four months and taken away immediately. The reading public were left, like us, to speculate over their toast and marmalade, as to what really lay behind this simple case of shoplifting.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, 30 December, 1888; Daily News, Monday, December 31, 1888]

‘You have most grossly ill-used this girl, and you will pay a fine of £5 to the Queen’: violence, theft and late night drinking dominate the news from  the early Victorian police courts

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The Police courts of the Victorian metropolis did not sit on Christmas Day but the newspapers were printed on Boxing day and they carried the stories of the week’s crime news. In the early days of the reportage of the ‘doings’ of these magistrates’ hearings the storytelling can be more elaborate than is the case later in the century. Dickens cut his teeth as a court reporter and you can certainly see some novelistic flourishes in the articles that were published under the header of ‘police intelligence’.

In the Boxing Day edition of The Morning Chronicle for 1838, in the first full year of Victoria’s long reign, there were three reports, all of the hearings heard on Christmas Eve before the courts closed for the holiday. At Worship Street Robert Terry was charged with breaking into a property in Hoxton with the intent to steal. As he entered the yard at the rear he was heard and a lodger went to investigate. Seeing a stranger in the dark the resident attempted an arrest and was badly beaten for his pains.

Fortunately a policeman was on hand to capture Terry and bring him before Mr Broughton at the East End police court. The intruder was well known to the police, having been ‘summarily conicted no less than six times’. On his way to the station Terry had told the officer (41N) ‘Well, you _____, you can’t hang me now: you can only give me two or three months for this’.

The magistrate told him he was mistaken: he would send to prison for two months for the attempted burglary and then on for trial as a ‘an incorrigible rogue’, for which he fully expected him to get a further year at hard labour.

At Lambeth Mary Byrne was brought before Mr Coombe charged with stealing nine pairs of gloves from a hosier in the Mile End Road. She was seen dropping a parcel containing the gloves into her basket soon after she entered the shop on the previous Saturday evening. Mary said she had travelled to the shop from Charing Cross and was so cold and wet (it had rained heavily that day) that her hands had ‘become so benumbed, that she was perfectly unconscious of what she did with them’. Her husband was a policeman, and had served since the formation of the force in 1829. He was an honest man but it didn’t save his wife who was sent back to gaol to await a trial in the new year.

Finally, the reporter from Thames Police court described the scene and exchange in court as Peter Murphy, a boilermaker, was prosecuted for a vicious attack on a young woman.

Sarah Douglas was assaulted by Murphy as she made her way home from a concert in a beer house called the Bee Hive. Murphy, quite drunk it seems, had caught up with Sarah and had knocked her to the ground. More than one witness (including PC William Wood of K Division) watched in horror as the man grappled with his victim and tore her clothes off. Poor Sarah was left with just her stays and a petticoat. The policeman rushed to her rescue but a mob of onlookers stole her clothes and ran away.

She must have known the young man that attacked her because in court she at first refused to press charges against him. Mr Ballantine, the sitting justice and a county justice sitting with him, were adamant however that the man must be punished. ‘That is very kind of you’, Mr Thistleton told her, ‘but we must punish him unless he has a very good defence’. All the boilermaker could say was that he was ‘very tipsy’.

‘But whether drunk or sober’, Mr Ballantine berated him,‘men don’t ill-use women and knock them down. It appears that you most grossly ill-used this girl, who had given you no provocation’.

He went on to add that:

‘If you had any manhood about you, you would not have done it. You will pay a fine of £5 to the Queen, or be imprisoned for two months’.

He then directed the police to look into the concert at the beer house, which, he suggested, was less than reputable.  The Bee Hive had been open much later than its license allowed and inspector Valentine of the Metropolitan Police promised he would give this his urgent attention.

Thus, the middle class reading public was suitably entertained by the bad behavior of the lower orders, but reassured that three near-do-wells (from the roughest areas of the capital) were safely locked up over Christmas.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, 26 December 1838]

A ‘typical girl’ in the dock at Clerkenwell

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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]

Stealing from John Lewis earns a ‘respectable’ woman an unwelcome day in court.

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John Lewis’ Oxford Street store, c.1885

Given the proliferation of shops in the capital it is not surprising that shoplifting was much more of a problem here than in most other towns in England. London was the shopping capital of northern Europe in the late 1800s and the concept of large department stores had been imported from America.

Shoplifting had always been associated with female offering. That’s not to say than men and boys didn’t do it, they did of course, but this was a crime which was more evenly distributed by gender. Robbery and burglary were crimes which were overwhelmingly committed by males, picking pockets and stealing from shops were much more likely to be undertaken by women and girls.

In the second half of the 1800s the idea that some women  (generally ‘respectable’ women) might steal because of a weakness, a compulsion to thieve, gained ground. Kleptomania was coined and became a way of explaining the theft of items (often small luxuries) by women who could easily afford to pay for them.

Of course this dent make it any less annoying for the poor shopkeeper. Nor did necessarily excuse such behaviour. In July 1888, just before the Whitechapel murderer began his atrocities in the East End, a ‘respectably connected’ woman was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street caused of stealing from Messers. Lewis in Oxford Street.

Ellen Harris (or possibly Ellen Barker as the court reporter noted she had an alias – often a sign of previous criminal connections) – was charged with stealing a black silk jersey from the store (the forerunner of the John Lewis Partnership we all know today). Ellen had ben in the shop on the Monday in the mantle department and had bought and paid for some items. An assistant the saw her select the jersey and hide it under her waterproof jacket and walk away.

The assistant told the store manager (Walter Cryer) and he followed her. Ellen left the store and started to stroll down Oxford Street. In the classic mode of a store detective Cryer tapped her on the shoulder and asked if she would accompany him back to the shop. Once inside and at the foot of the first staircase Cryer challenged her with the fact that she’d taken the jersey without paying for it.

Ellen denied it and started back up the stair. She stopped halfway, putting her hand inside her jacket and asked him:

‘If I give it to you now, will that do?’

It would not, Mr Cyrer replied and said he’d already summoned a detective to investigate. When he failed to show up Cryer went and found a policeman on the street and handed the woman over. She pleaded with them not to take her in saying she was ‘respectably connected’. In court her solicitor suggested that it was a mistake, that Ellen was ‘absent minded’ and ‘vacant’ when stopped by the store manger. He was trying to paint a picture of a woman who was not entirely in her right mind, one suffering from a compulsion she could not control.

The constable that took her into custody rather supported this interpretation but the store manager disagreed. In the end Mr Hannay, the police court magistrate, denied he could not deal with the case and remanded her with a view to sending her for trial.  At the last moment another witness appeared; the manager of another large store, Gask and Gask’s. He identified a number of handkerchiefs that the police had found in Ellen’s possession as the property of his shop. Things didn’t look good for Ellen.

In the end Ellen was prosecuted at the Middlesex Sessions and convicted of theft from John Lewis and Gask’s.  She was 40 years of age and described simply as ‘married’. The judge didn’t send her prison so perhaps he thought there was grounds for accepting a plea that she was ‘distracted’ in some way. The court took sureties as to her future behaviour, and perhaps these were guaranteed by her husband or wider family. If she’d been younger, or unmarried, or working class, I doubt she’d have got off so lightly.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 11, 1888]

An elderly kleptomaniac in North London

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From about the middle of the nineteenth century mental weakness was used to explain some forms of petty offending, usually by women. The idea that female shoplifters were impelled to steal as a result of their ‘inferior’ or ‘weak’ minds helped explain, if not entirely excuse, those ‘respectable’ women caught stealing small items from London’s new department stores.

I’ve nearly always heard kleptomania associated with women but in this case the suggestion was that an elderly man could also be susceptible to this form of ‘brain fever’. This fits the underlying narrative however: women, children and the elderly were all ‘weak’ in the eyes of Victorian society. All required some level of protection, and sometimes from themselves.

Robert Lacey was working in his yard on Hertford Road in Kingsland one evening in July 1892 when an old man entered. The visitor offered  Lacey a whip socket for sale but he wasn’t interested and the man went away. As he was leaving however Lacey saw him take a waterproof knee-length apron from the ‘rail of a pleasure van’. The old man calmly folded the apron up, ticked it under his jacket, and walked away.

Lacey followed after and caught him, waiting until a policeman came into view before handing him over. When he was searched at the station the police found the apron (worth just 6s) and the whip socket plus ‘four carriage-handles, three knives, a billiard-ball case, eight pawn-tickets, and two bottles of oil’. Quite how he carried all these is a mystery!

In court before the North London Police Magistrates the man gave his name as John Clark, 60 years of age and said he was very sorry. He’d only recently been released from Banstead Lunatic Asylum ‘where he had been detained as a kleptomaniac’. The magistrate – Mr Bros – called for enquiries to be made by the surgeon at the gaol to determine ‘the state of his mind’. He remanded him in custody in the meantime.

Judging by the eclectic list of things that Clark had in his possession he certainly seems to have been someone ‘collecting’ things by impulse rather than a determined thief but one wonders if the unforgiving justice system of the time was able to appreciate that.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, July 9, 1892]