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]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

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]

No mercy at Marlborough Street for a lad down on his luck

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London can be a perilous place for visitors, especially if they don’t keep a close eye on their valuables. Thieves operate in crowded streets and quieter backwaters and victims often don’t realize they have been robbed until it is far too late.

Miss Caroline Coplestone was hardly guilty of taking no notice of what she was doing or where she was but she still fell victim to a desperate criminal. Miss Coplestone, who had come up to town from Wimbledon, was walking on Bond Street in the middle of the day, taking in the diverse array of fashionable items in the shops.

Suddenly, out of nowhere a young lad rushed past her, grabbing her purse from her hand as he did so. It is reminiscent of modern phone robberies; snatched from your hand before you can react and take evasive action.

As the boy ran away Caroline must have yelped and a nearby policeman saw what happened and set off in pursuit of the thief. PC Maidment caught the lad and demanded to know what he had in his pockets.

‘Nothing’, the boy replied, all innocent. On being searched however Miss Coplestone’s purse, complete with the £4 and 9dit contained was found in his jacket pocket. On the following day the lad, policeman and Miss Coplestone appeared at the Marlborough Street Police court for the case to be heard by Mr. Mansfield, the sitting magistrate.

The boy was 15 and his name was William Kelly. He was described as ‘a labourer’ but was out of work and such descriptions are pretty unhelpful anyway; ‘labourer’ was often a default term for any working-class person who did not identify himself or his occupation otherwise.

William pleaded poverty and a lack of employment but it didn’t help him much. He said he was very sorry for what he’d done and that could sometimes help in cases like this. Magistrates liked to hear contrition after all, and some young men could be quite belligerent in the dock. Sadly for William Mr Mansfield wasn’t in the mood for ‘second chances’. He looked at William and saw a thief that needed to be taught a lesson. He sent him to prison for three months at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, August 29, 1887]

p.s curiously Coplestone is an unusual surname but one to which I am related. My Coplestones are from Cornwall so I wonder if Caroline was a distant ancestor who moved to the ‘smoke’?

‘I’ll steal from you Mr Robinson’: pilfering in the Victorian department store

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Edith Oliver’s appearance at Marlborough Street Police court in May 1876 gives us a glimpse back at the beginnings of the department store in London. Edith was accused of stealing ‘a bonnet shape’ from her employer and when her lodgings were searched several other items were found, including ‘lace, silk, and velvet materials used in the workroom’ on Oxford Street.

The bonnet pattern had been discovered concealed under Edith’s clothes so she must been the subject on suspicion, perhaps based on information from another employee. The firm employed 500 workers and there were notices posted up all over the building warning the staff of the consequences of taking home things that belonged to the company without permission.

Wages for workers in the clothing trades in the late 1800s weren’t large and Edith (like many others) was probably keen to supplement them by doing private work or making and repairing clothes for her family. There was nothing new in this of course, workers had been taking home offcuts as ‘perks’ (perquisites) of the job for centuries. It was in the previous century that the owners of businesses had started to clamp down in such pilferage, and parliament had obliged by passing hundreds of laws to prohibit thefts from the workplace with the threat of capital punishment for those that persisted.

By 1876 Edith wasn’t going to face such a severe penalty but if convicted she would almost certainly lose her liberty, and her job. Mr Addrett, the works manager, said that they were vulnerable to pilfering an so it was necessary to make an example of her. William Franklin, a timekeeper at the firm, testified that Edith had told him she was setting herself up in business privately and that the goods found at her home belonged to her and weren’t stolen.

Mr Newton, the sitting magistrate, found Edith quietly and sentenced her to 14 days hard labour. She would also lose her job but he didn’t think that would affect her too much, and fully believed she would find work again afterwards somewhere else. He hinted that there should be a tighter control of such staff and that character references should be taken as they were for domestics. Otherwise someone like Edith might walk into employment and start pilfering all over again.

Now we routinely take references which often ask questions about the prospective employee’s honesty and suitability. Edith would have found it hard to get similar work without the Mr Addrett’s recommendation  but I’m sure if she was a talented seamstress she would have had no problem getting piece work away from the bright lights of Oxford Street and over in the East End.

Which brings me to reveal where Edith worked. She was employed by Mr Peter Robinson, silk mercer, on Oxford Circus. Robinson had run a business in the West End from the 1830s and opened his department store on Oxford Street in 1850. By 1876 he was dead and since he had no male children the store must have been run by someone else. It wasn’t run by his younger assistant, John Lewis, because he turned down the opportunity to go into business with his mentor, opting instead to open his own shop in 1864. I wonder how he got on?

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 26, 1876]

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]

Whitecross Street, ‘one of the most disgraceful streets in the metropolis’.

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In today’s Britain we are used to a 24/7 retail culture. We can shop every day of the week from dawn to early evening and beyond and the notion of keeping Sunday ‘special’ has long gone. Yet I can remember when Sunday trading was not ubiquitous and even a time when most shops still shut for a half day or closed early during the week.

Victorian London was a busy commercial city and shops and businesses opened early and shut late. The working day was long and, for much of the century, there was little protection for workers who had few rights. The rights we enjoy today were hard won in the twentieth century by the trades unions and the emerging Labour Party.

Nevertheless Victorian Britain was also a more religious society than is the case today. Even if fewer people regularly attended church than we might assume, there were laws in place – some going back to the reign of King Charles II – to maintain Sunday as a day of rest as stipulated in Christian teaching.

It would seem though that the laws surrounding Sunday trading were only partially obeyed or enforced. The New Police had fought a long running battle with small businessmen from the 1830s onwards to keep the Sabbath sacred, and it was a battle (according to Stephen Inwood) in which they frequently had to concede defeat.

Edward Varuvain and George Martin were shopkeepers who fell foul of the law in February 1873. The men ran shops in Whitecross Street and were summoned at the request of the St Luke’s vestry for ‘pursuing a worldly avocation on the Lord’s day’. Charities and essential services were exempt from the laws but Varuvain and Martin did not come under that category.

Whitecross Street had been a problem for the vestry for some time. There were several shops there and plenty of costermongers who plied their trade there. There had been a market there for centuries (and there is still a thriving food market there today and lots of trendy shops and eateries). The police had tried to move the costers off and shut the shops, but tensions had flared. Eventually an uneasy truce had broken out. The costers were allowed to operate up until 11 on a Sunday morning and the shopkeepers agreed to stay closed.

Then in early 1873 some of the retailers began to open on the sabbath and others, presumably emboldened or simply not wishing to miss out, followed suit. The costermongers, seeing their compromise agreement being effectively abandoned, resumed trading all day long.

The local sanitary inspector visited the street on the previous Sunday and found it cluttered with barrows and with several shops open. Martin was out in the street crying his wares, shouting ‘buy! buy! buy! What will you buy?’ and so ‘rendered the street a Babel’ as the inspector put it.

Mr Pedder from the vestry said it had become ‘one of the most disgraceful streets in the metropolis’ and the case against the two men was proved. However, given that Mr Ricketts (the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell) only fined them 1s each plus costs, I doubt it deterred them from similar behaviour in the future. After all, they had a living to make.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, February 9, 1873]