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]

‘Chops, kidneys and the Queen’: An unusual magic lantern show advertises a butcher’s wares

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Advert for a magic lantern. c.1885

Have you ever stood and watched the rolling advertisement we now get in some underground and other railway stations? These have moved beyond the static poster advertising a new film, holiday destination or fashion retailer, and catch our attention with moving images. On some escalators you can watch the same advert appear and disappear before your eyes as to ascend or descend the stairway.

If you had assumed this is another example of the innovative and all pervading reach of modern marketing – think again! As with so many things the Victorians were at over a hundred years ago.

In early April 1891 William Harris appeared before the chief magistrate for London at Bow Street Police court. Mr Harris, a prominent butcher, was charged with causing an obstruction on the pavement opposite his shop on the Strand. The butcher was a colourful and flamboyant character and brought his three sons (simply known as “no. 1, No. 2, and No. 3”) into court dressed in ‘white slops, etc, to resemble miniature pork butchers’. He had also hired a defense attorney, Mr Wildey Wright, to represent him.

Chief Inspector Willis of the local police said that at around 9 o’clock on the 28 March last a crowd of around 50 people had gathered across the Strand from Harris’ butcher’s shop and they were staring at his roof. The crowd had become so large that passers-by had to step out into the road to avoid it. Those standing on the street were watching a magic lantern display that Harris had installed above his premises as advertising.

As a constable tried to move the crowd on CI Willis watched as the display passed though several images of the Queen and other members of the royal family followed by cuts of meat and sausages, and then back to scenes from politics and public life.

The inspector agreed that there was ‘nothing objectionable’ about the images shown it was just that people were entranced by it and stood watching, thus blocking the passage of the street. It was a Bank Holiday, he explained, and the crowds were bigger than they normally were. This suggests that the butcher regularly used a magic lantern show to advertise his ‘chops and kidneys’.

Sir John Bridge, the magistrate, said Harris was a ‘very good Englishman and a good neighbour no doubt, and very fond of pigs; but there seemed to be some evidence of obstruction’. The defense lawyer said his client would certainly withdraw the images of the Queen and politicians of the day if that is what his neighbours demanded but he had invested a lot of money in the display.

The justice decided to suspend judgment for a month to take some soundings from local people and the police. Mr Harris meanwhile (to rising laughter in the courtroom) promised he would only show pictures of his meat products in future, and not Her Majesty or her cabinet.

[from The Standard, Friday, April 10, 1891]

Health & Safety in Victorian Bow: I can’t believe it IS butter

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A lot has been made in recent years about the contents of foodstuffs and the laws we have in place to protect consumers. Restrictions of what went into food and drink, along with attempts to police illegal practices, are part and parcel of the growth of the state in the Victorian period. Quite simply the Hanoverian state was not large enough or as a closely controlled from the centre as Britain became in the 1800s following its victory over Napoleonic France. From the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign her governments oversaw a tremendous increase in bureaucratic systems aimed at monitoring and controlling all aspects of daily life.

Today we might complain about ‘health and safety gone mad’ but this process is not a new one, it started in the 1800s and we can see it in things like the Factory Acts, legislation to determine the width of streets, the building of houses, the amount of hours children could work, and the amount of adulteration allowing in the production of foodstuffs.

So whether it was chalk in bread (to make it whiter), water in milk (to make it go further) or the sale of meat that was off, the Victorians led where we have followed in trying to protect the consumer from physical harm and from being ‘ripped off’. Today one of the key battles over our future relationship with Europe revolves around arguments over who can best protect our current regulations on food safety.

In April 1894 Frederick Lock and Edgar Simmonds were summoned to appear before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court.  The summons were issued on behalf of the Bow Sanitary Authority and their officer was in court to press charges against the two men who kept shops in the district.  The sanitary officer had visited each man’s premises and reported that both were selling butter from large tubs kept behind their counters.

Now we buy butter from supermarkets and it comes pre measured, wrapped, and in chilled cabinet. In the late nineteenth century it was sold loose and by weight, so you bought exactly what you needed. This was a age before modern refrigeration and you simply couldn’t keep things cold and fresh easily at home. Nor did most families in East London have the money to waste food or to purchase any more than they needed. It was quite common for housewives to buy a pennyworth of this or that, a twist of tea, or, say, a rasher of bacon.

When the officer entered first Lock and then Simmonds’ shops he asked for a ‘half-pound of that’, pointing at the butter in the tubs. There were no labels on the wooded tubs but, he said, it was widely understood that they contained butter. However, when he took the ‘butter’ and had it analyzed it was found to be adulterated in each case with ‘foreign fats’ (i.e. substances other than butter). Lock’s butter only contained 40% pure butter while Simmonds was better with  53%. Both men had allegedly contrived the law surrounding legislation which is why the officer had brought the prosecution.

Instead of butter, the officer stated, the retailers were selling their customers ‘margarine’ a cheaper, less ‘pure’ substance. Neither man denied selling margarine however, and said that they’d never labeled the tubs as butter anyway. There was no deception involved, they argued, and Mr Bushby (the magistrate) was minded to agree. This seemed like an overeager ‘heath and safety’ officer who hadn’t appreciated how small shopkeepers like this operated in the district.

Nevertheless there was a clear breach of the law even if it was perhaps not intended to defraud or deceive. Mr Bushby fined each of the 10and awarded costs (of 126d) to the sanitary officer. Both would have to ensure that in future their labeling was clear so that they didn’t attract the wrong sort of attention from the inspectors.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 07, 1894]

A young lad is ‘too sharp for his prosecutors’, and swallows the evidence

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Mrs Sarah Cameron ran a tobacconist shop on the Broadway in Westminster, central London. One evening in November 1840 a young man  called William Meeton entered the ‘snuff and tobacco’ shop and asked for a cigar. He handed over half a crown and she gave him the cigar and his change (which consisted of ‘two shillings and four pennyworth of halfpences’).

Meeton scraped up the coin but after examining carefully it ‘threw down a shilling alleging it was bad’. He accused the tobacconist of trying to fob him off with forgeries but Mrs Cameron was sure the coins she had handed over were fine, and she said so. Now she suspected him of committing a crime and called for a policeman who soon arrived and arrested the lad.

William Meeton was charged at Queen’s Square Police Court with uttering – a variant of the wider crime of coining and forgery. While forging meant making false notes (and coming, fake coins), uttering described the practice of using or distributing counterfeit money.

The magistrate demande to see the coin in question. Sadly Mrs Cameron didn’t have it. Why not, Mr Burrell asked?

The young man had swallowed it she told him, along with several other shillings he had in his possession. It was a common enough ploy to get rid of the evidence (albeit temporarily). The chief usher of the Police Court informed his worship that that the accused was ‘well known’ to the court, which would have counted against him. However, without the proof that the shillings were bad there was little the justice could do. After some conferring Mr Burrell and his clerk agreed that no case could be made without the coins as evidence.

He turned to Meeton and told him that while today he ‘had been too sharp for his prosecutors’ his card was marked, and warned him about his future conduct. He was discharged, presumably to find the nearest privy!

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 18, 1840]

NB a half-crown was worth 2 shillings and 6 pence so you can work out for yourselves just how much Mrs Cameron was selling her cigars for. No age is given for Meeton but this wouldn’t matter anyway in the context of the 19th century. There was no age restriction on buying or selling tobacco to minors until 1933. It still isn’t illegal for children to smoke but under 16 it is subject to parental control. 

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]

‘If you had been pursued all over London and were hated by the government, you would wish to shoot yourself’: drama at Bow Street as a respectable citizen tries to take his own life.

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This story is both sad and dramatic as it concerns a man’s very public attempt at suicide. Most of the cases that I’ve written about previously that have involved suicide have been women and most of those have chosen to end their lives by throwing themselves into the River Thames or one of the canals that ran through the capital. Most were prevented by quick-thinking policemen or passers-by and ended up before magistrates because attempting to take one’s life was against the law in the 1800s.

In this example the defendant was a man, and a respectable one at that. Robert H. Rhodes lived in St John’s Wood and worked for the Land Revenue Record Office. So Robert was a middle class white-collar worker, he was married and he had children and so was a very long way, it would seem, from the desperation of the usually poor and destitute women (and men) who chose to throw themselves from the various bridges that crisscrossed the Thames.

Appearances can be deceptive of course, and mental illness is no respecter of class or wealth. Rhodes was under some sort of pressure: in his appearance that Bow Street he told Mr Bridge (sitting as the duty magistrate) that he had ‘been pursued all over London, and [was] hated by the Government and bullied by everyone’.

While we don’t know why exactly Robert decided to end his life we do know how. In mid September 1886 the revenue man walked into a gunmaker’s shop in Cockspur Street near Trafalgar Square. He showed the assistant a cartridge he’d brought with him and asked to see some revolvers that might fit it. The shopkeeper brought out some examples and Rhodes calmly selected one and loaded it with his cartridge.

Then he ‘turned the revolver round till the muzzle pointed to his head and was trying to pull the trigger when the shopkeeper seized his arm’, and saved his life. The police were called and Rhodes was led away. As the constable took him to the nearest police station Rhodes begged him to let him end his life saying that otherwise ‘his wife and family would be forever ruined’.

We get no further clues as to what had led Robert Rhodes to make this terrible decision to kill himself but perhaps he was about to lose his position, or owed a large amount of money, or was suffering in some other way with the pressures of his job? Two gentlemen approached the bench and said they would take care of him and be responsible for his future conduct. I presume these were his friends or colleagues.  They agreed to be bound for six months as sureties at £250 each (about £16,500 today, so a huge sum of money) and Mr Bridge duly released Robert on the condition he did not repeat his attempt within that period.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, September 21, 1886]

For other cases involving attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

A destitute Essex girl in London makes the news

A circus artist for whom the show cannot go on alone

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

A man with (literally) no legs to stand on gets little sympathy from the ‘beak’.

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Richard Wright had lost both his legs. How, is not made clear but he may have lost them in an accident, war or through disease. Wright was also elderly and struggled about the East End on two sticks. His only remedy for the pain and ill humour his disability and advanced age brought him was alcohol. However when he drank he became drunk and disorderly and sometimes quite violent, which brought him no end of abuse and considerable trouble with the law.

He had been court on a number of occasions, once for smashing the windows of a doctor’s shop with his walking supports.

Wright had become the butt of local jokes and pranks, especially those of the street children of East London. A policeman reported that on one occasion he’d come across Wright, back to the wall, fending off 300-400 youths swinging his sticks towards them as they teased and berated him.

In August 1867 he was drunk and facing down another group of children who were ‘shouting, jeering, and laughing at him’. The group had followed him as he staggered his way through Stratford, Bromley and Bow and he’d had enough of them. As he flourished his sticks again, one struck a lad on the head, tearing his cap and drawing blood. The boys scarpered as the police arrived and arrested the old man.

In front of Mr Benson at Thames Police Wright was unrepentant. Some of the boys had pelted him with mud and pulled him around, so he was provoked. He told the magistrate that the boys ‘would never let him alone’.

Because you get drunk and make a fool of yourself’, the beak told him.

Mr Benson had little or no sympathy with the old man and told him he was:

a dangerous, ill-conducted man, and that if did not get drunk, and make a nuisance of himself he would be an object of pity, not of violence’.

He then sentenced him to three days in prison for the assault on one of his tormentors. Wright grumbled a response:

What am I to do, your Worship, when I come out of prison? The boys won’t leave me alone’.

Keep sober’, was the justice’s response, ‘and the boys will not molest you’.

‘Fat chance’ Wight might have replied, but he wisely kept his mouth shut and shuffled off to the cells. I can imagine this happening today but I would have expected to find the lads in the dock not an old man with no legs to stand on.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 27, 1867]