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]

A practised fraudster with ‘considerable attractions’.

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Pimlico from Greenwood’s 1827 map – you can see the star shaped Milbank Prison on the right

When Maria Jessy York appeared before the magistrate at Westminster Police court she didn’t immediately strike the watching reporter as a typical occupant of the dock. Maria was described as ‘a girl possessing considerable attractions’ suggesting she had both looks and a respectable appearance.

She had certainly fooled a Miss Taylor of Pimlico, who she had been friends with for some time. Miss Taylor told the court that Maria had been ‘in the habit’ of visiting her regularly and occasionally staying over for ‘a few days’ at her home at 104 Warwick Street.

However, one day she noticed that some of her possessions were missing. She was perturbed to discover that she couldn’t find a handkerchief, a pair of stockings and, worst of all, a favourite purse with 15s in it. She told Maria all about her loss and received a full and sympathetic reply in the post:

‘Do not, dearest girl, think more about your unfortunate loss than possible – it will do no god, but only make you feel uncomfortable. You regret the loss of the purse, to say nothing of its contents; and I hope it was not presented to you by any one for whom you have a particular regard.

You must allow me to make you another, and I flatter myself it will be beloved almost as much; and as for the content, do feel – as I should be so  much happier if you would – that whatever I have is at your service; and I am but too happy, dear, that the kindness of others has allowed me to make an offer which I feared to do in person, lest you should not understand that it is because I love you dearly that I have taken the liberty of saying so. You are heartily welcome to anything I possess,

Maria’.

It was a kind and considerate letter from on friend to another but something wasn’t quite right and Miss Taylor must have harboured some suspicions about her new companion. A few days later Maria was picked up by the police and when PC Rice (248B) searched her he found the handkerchief, stockings, and Miss Taylor’s purse in her possession. She was charged and presented at Westminster where the justice committed her for trial.

In court she tried to use the name Crowley but I can find neither a Maria Crowley nor Maria York at the Old Bailey. Maria Jessie York does feature in the criminal registers however so we can be fairly sure she made to trial at Middlesex sessions. The summary court report suggests that Miss Taylor was merely one of her victims so this young woman was probably a practised fraudster, preying on the vulnerable emotions of the capital’s well-do young ladies. If she was convicted of multiple thefts then Maria may well have ended up staying in Pimlico for a little longer (and in considerably less comfort)  at Milbank Prison.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, December 19, 1851]