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]

A defiant cook takes her chances before a jury

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The Police Courts of London had the power to act summarily (i.e without a jury) in a large number of instances. Many offences were prosecuted at this level without troubling the judges at Hick’s Hall or Old Bailey, and very many people were sent to prison on the judgment of a Police Court magistrate acting alone.

This suited society, because it kept the jury courts free of the more petty offenders or offences and it arguably also suited quite a few defendants. A Police Court magistrate had limited powers to punish summarily; he could fine you and send you to prison, but only for relatively short periods of time. A judge at the sessions or central criminal court could put you away for years on end, even life.

So we often see prisoners asking the magistracy to deal with them summarily, preferring a quick hearing and a short sentence to being remanded for a week or two to face a jury and perhaps a lengthy period of penal servitude. Harriet Payne however, chose a different path, which perhaps reflects the fact that she (or her lawyer) believed she might earn the sympathy of a jury or (more likely) be able to cast enough doubt in their minds as to her culpability for the crime she was accused of.

Harriet Payne had worked as a cook for Mrs Eliza Godwin in Upper Tooting for a year from 1864 to 1865. On the 17 December she was dismissed after a week’s notice. Almost as soon as she had vacated her room at Holme Cottage her mistress ( a widow) noticed that a number of things were missing including table cloths, napkins and other items of linen, and then, a few days later, three ‘finger glasses’ disappeared.

Suspicion immediately fell on Harriet and she was arrested by the police. PC Kempster was unable to trace any of the things stolen back to the prisoner (with the exception of a shawl which she declared was her property) but a glass was discovered at a neighbour’s house in Tooting. However, in the course of searching the former cook’s room the police did find a key that happened to fit one of the linen drawers at Holme Cottage.

This was proof that Harriet could have taken the table linen as suspected and this was enough for Mr Ingham the sitting magistrate at Wandsworth. He decided that she was probably guilty of theft but that it was hard to prove it so he found her guilty instead of the lesser offence of unlawfully possessing the shawl she’d claimed was her own. He started to hand down a sentence of two months imprisonment but Mr Wilson, Harriett’s lawyer, begged leave to interrupt his worship. He asked instead that she be able to take her chances with the jury at the sessions and the magistrate allowed this.

Harriett was released on bail to face a trial later that month or early the next year, the outcome of which may have seen her released with her reputation intact, or sent to a London prison for a longer stretch than Mr Ingram had originally intended. That was the risk she took and I’m afraid I can’t discover the result.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 21 December, 1865]

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]

It is often the mistakes crooks make that get them caught

Curtain Road, from the Corner of Great Eastern Street

Curtain Road, Shoreditch in the late 1800s

Sometimes it is the small twists of chance that mean that crimes are discovered. On a grand scale it was the sighting of a parked car with false number plates that led to the arrest of Peter Sutcliffe (the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’) In January 1981. Sutcliffe had evaded police for years, despite being interviewed by them on more than one occasion. It is quite likely that his inspiration – the nineteenth-century killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ – was also questioned by the men of H Division and the City as they hunted London’s most notorious serial killer.

What this shows perhaps is that the police need an element of luck to add to their forensic knowledge and information gleaned from intelligence (informers etc). That luck often comes because criminals make mistakes, or someone becomes suspicious.

Mr Stevenson wasn’t looking for a thief when he asked his co-worker for a light for his cigarette. He and Frank Neski worked for William Cutting & Sons, a firm of upholsters in Curtain Road, Shoreditch. Frank (a lad of just 18) told his mate that he had some matches in his coat pocket and he could help himself to them.

However, when Stevenson fumbled in the man’s pockets he found more than a packet of lucifers: there were several pawn tickets and he quickly realized that they were for parcels of satin. It seemed that Frank was stealing cloth from the firm and pawning at local ‘brokers. He might have kept quiet but it was well known on the factory floor that satin had been going missing and suspicion was falling on several people, but Frank Nevski wasn’t one of them.

No one suspected him.

With accusations (false ones at that) flying around Stevenson did the ‘right thing’ and told his fellow workmates and then Mr. Cutting. Nevski was arrested and brought for a committal hearing at the Worship Street Police court. This was serious and could easily end up as a trail at the Old Bailey meaning young Frank faced a long spell in gaol.

In court the magistrate heard from Stevenson and two pawnbokers who testified to receiving the satin from Nevski. Faced with overwhelming evidence against him Frank didn’t try to wriggle out of it, he confessed to the crime but said he never intended to steal, only to borrow the cloth to get much needed money. It was a old excuse – one I heard more than once when I worked in retail – he fully intended to redeem his pledge and put the satin back when he got paid.

The magistrate was sure that Frank Nevski had stolen the material but he accepted his guilty plea and agreed to deal with the case summarily. Frank would go to prison for six months, the maximum sentence the bench was able to hand down without sending him before a jury. He would serve that with hard labour but perhaps more importantly he would almost certainly lose his position at Cuttings’ factory. That would impact his young life every bit as much as the half year behind bars.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 27, 1879]

Drug dealing in Rotherhithe, an age-old problem

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Most of the drugs that are prohibited by law today were legal in the nineteenth century but contemporaries recognized that there was a problem with drug use. Opium eating and smoking was widely condemned and attempts were made to restrict its use after 1868 by only allowing its sale by registered pharmacists. However, it wasn’t until 1908 that opium, morphine, cocaine, and some morphine derivatives were classified as ‘poisons’.

Most of the concern was with alcohol, not recreational drugs, and the real moves against cocaine, cannabis, psychedelics and heroin came well into the twentieth century.  Cocaine was prohibited in 1916 amid concerns about its use in the armed forces, and after the First World War Britain had to take steps to introduce a dangerous act under the terms of the Hague Convention in 1920 and later when we became a full member of the League of Nations. Amphetamines were not controlled until 1964, heroin three years later, while cannabis (which had been banned as an amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act in 1928) use grew in the 1960s and many prosecutions followed.

Nineteenth-century London didn’t have a problem with drugs but there were prosecutions in relation them. In June 1883 William Dell, a druggist’s assistant, was brought up at the Guildhall Police court accused to stealing over £25 worth of drugs from his employer. In today’s money the amount he’d stolen (£25-30) would be around £2,000, so it was not an inconsiderable sum.

We have no idea from the report exactly what drugs Dell was supposed to have taken from Messrs. Evans, Lescher, and Webb at 60 Bartholomew Close, or whether he was planning on selling them around Rotherhithe where he lived. His lodgings on Ilderton Road were raided after he was searched by the pharmacy manager as he left work.

Mr. Forsyth (the manager) said all employees were subjected to a search after a stock take revealed that chemicals were missing. Dell was clean but he hadn’t got his usual bag and when that was brought down about £2 worth of drugs were discovered inside. Much more of the company’s property was discovered when lodgings were searched.

In court Dell pleaded guilty and asked the magistrate to deal with him summarily, so he could avoid a jury trial and a stiffer sentence. Alderman Fowler acceded to his requests and sent him to prison for four months at hard labour.

Everyone will have their own opinion of drug prohibition. Today there is a well-established drug culture in Britain which has survived 100 years of attempts at restricting it. While many young (and older) people die of drug-related conditions and many more suffer from the mental health related effects of non-prescription drugs, the main consequence of 100 years of prohibition has been to criminalize tens of thousands of drug users and to allow a criminal network of drug pushers to develop. Just as the 18thamendment to the Constitution of the United States in effect created the Mafia, the banning of recreational drugs has created the gang culture and levels of organized crime in the UK (and abroad) that we see today.

People will take drugs, and people will be damaged by taking drugs, but there is nothing the state can do to prevent this happening by prohibition. Education and a safe (or safer) environment for drug use is the only way that society can hope to beat addiction and the crime that flows from it.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 21, 1883]

The polite thief and her ‘have-a-go’ victim

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Female prisoners in Tothill Fields House of Correction 

Mary Driscoll was well known to the establishment at Southwark Police Court. A ‘powerful -looking female’, she was in the dock for ‘highway robbery’ before the sitting magistrate, Mr Coombe.

Her victim was a ‘respectable tradesman’ named Samuel Hunter and he gave his evidence without the need for a lawyer. Hunter alleged that at about midnight on Friday 9 April 1858 he was crossing from London Road to Borough Road when a hansom cab turned the corner fast, and knocked him to the ground.

A woman (the prisoner Mary) ran over to help him up but as she did so she took the opportunity to pick his pockets. Unfortunately for her he felt her dip into his pocket and seized hold of her. They struggled and a man ran over and got involved. Hunter thought she had passed something to this man, who then ran off.

It was plausible, palming stolen goods to an accomplice was a common practice then and remains so today. The woman was violent he said and several other ‘well-known thieves’ arrived on the scene to try and help her escape or, which seems as likely, steal his other effects including his hat and a handkerchief.

He held on to Mary and soon enough a policeman was on hand to take her into custody.

Mary’s defence was fairly straightforward; she denied everything and said that Hunter was drunk (which he probably was). Suggesting her victim was not in command of his senses was also a sensible tactic. It undermined the validity of his evidence (or at least introduced an element of doubt) and he gained him in a poor light.

Hunter retaliated by saying he was far from drunk and delighted in telling Mr Coombe that Driscoll (and the army of petty thieves that had joined in the assault on him) had failed to discover the £20 in gold and silver he had concealed on his person that night.

Mr Coombe offered Mary the opportunity (under legislation passed just a couple of years earlier) to have the case determined by him or to take her chances with a jury. Mary opted for the summary process and admitted the theft. Mr Coombe sentenced her to four months’ hard labour which she accepted gracefully, thanking the justice before she was led away.

For a practised thief like Mary Driscoll arrest and imprisonment was a calculated risk. She’d be out before long and in the meantime she got board and lodgings for free, at Her Majesty’s expense. Samuel Hunter had his day in court and a story to dine out on for year – how he’d thwarted a notorious ‘highway robber’ and protected his valuables.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 12, 1858]

A practised thief accepts prison as ‘an occupational hazard’.

Any Gentleman Oblige A Lady Cassells Family Mag 1885

Public transport brought people of all stations of life together in the crowded Victorian metropolis. Contemporaries worried about the collapse of the natural barriers of class, particularly on the railways where women travelling alone were vulnerable to unwanted male attention. The London omnibus also provided the city’s thieves with plenty of opportunities to prey on the unsuspecting or careless commuter and practised pickpockets could hope to avoid detection most of the time.

Occasionally however they weren’t so lucky and risked an appearance before a Police Court magistrate, or worse – a sessions or Old Bailey jury – and the very real prospect of prison. I suspect many of them – like the fictional ‘Norman Stanley Fletcher’ of BBC’s Porridge – accepted this as ‘an occupational hazard’. If you chose to ‘pick a pocket or two’ then every now and then you would get caught.

This is what happened to one ‘respectably dressed’ woman named Jane Clark. Jane was riding on an omnibus in Oxford Street and keeping her wits about her for her next opportunity to ‘dip’. This arrived in the person of Mrs Amy Massy, a resident of Great Titchfield Street in Fitzrovia.

Mrs Massy was seated on the ‘bus and probably didn’t even notice the unremarkable woman sat beside her. Something moved her to become concerned however, and she reached into her pocket to ‘see if her purse was safe’. To her horror she discovered that the elastic band she used to keep it secure had been forced off and ‘two sovereigns had been taken from it’.

Amy called the conductor and accused her neighbour on the ‘bus of stealing them. She claimed she’d seen Jane’s hand ‘in her pocket’ but I doubt she did. If Jane Clark was a practised thief then it is highly unlikely anyone saw anything untoward. However, in order to secure a conviction it was imperative that someone witnessed the ‘private theft from the person’ that the law defined.

Jane denied the theft and no coins were found on her or, at first at least, on the omnibus. Later though a young lad named Henry Taylor found two sovereigns on the floor of the bus when it reached Islington. He handed them in and they were eventually traced back to Mrs Massy after a police investigation.

On the following day Jane Clark was set before the Police magistrate at Marlborough Street, Mr Tyrwhitt, where she was defended by Mr Lewis, a lawyer. Jane again denied the theft and Mr Lewis tried to suggest that Mrs Massy had dropped the coins when she took out her handkerchief to wipe her face. The magistrate said he was minded to send the case for a jury to decide; there was considerable doubt here as to whether Jane was guilty after all. But this wasn’t at all popular with the defendant.

It is quite likely that Jane Clark was a known offender and would be exposed as such at the Middlesex Sessions. If a jury convicted her she might face a lengthy spell inside and that was to be avoided at all costs. Mr Lewis pleaded with the justice to deal with the case summarily. Tyrwhitt was reluctant at first and even offered to bail Jane in the interim.

In the end Jane agreed to plead guilty (as was her right after 1855) and the magistrate sentenced her to two months in prison with hard labour, not ideal but not penal servitude with all that included. Jane would be back on the streets by the summer, and able to go back to ‘work’ on the thousands of tourists that rode the ‘buses of the Victorian capital.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 23, 1865]