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]

When it is the victim’s character that is really on trial, and that is what really matters in a male dominated courtroom

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Sometimes what might seem to be a fairly straightforward prosecution can reveal all sorts of other things, including contemporary prejudices and assumptions. Take this case as an example: in March 1895 George Brown was charged with stealing ‘a metal bracelet and brooch’ from Mollie Dashwood. The location of the theft and the behaviour of the victim both gave the accused (and the newspapers writing up the story) the opportunity to attack the woman’s character rather than treat her as someone who had been robbed.

Mollie (or Mrs Dashwood as she presented herself) told the sitting magistrate at Westminster Police court that on the previous Saturday evening (23 March) she had suddenly felt faint so had dropped in to the Black Horse pub for ‘a drop of brandy’. It was there she met George Brown who was known to the landlord and described as his friend.

George was there with some chums and they invited Mollie to join them in a few drinks. George showed an interest in her bracelet and began to play with it on her arm; flirting with her is how we might see it. After a while he managed to persuade her to go into the billiard room with him, perhaps because it was quieter, and there he helped her off with her boa (her feather scarf that she would have worn as a sort of collar accessory). According to the barmaid at some point Mollie removed the bracelet and her brooch and asked her to look after them, but she refused.

Things were getting a little intimate and the landlord had noticed.  This was what was concentrated on in court as Mollie was cross-examined by the magistrate and the prisoner’s counsel. She was married and gave a (false) address in Catherine Street where she said she lived with her husband. Dashwood was her stage name: she was a former ‘serio-dancer’ who had ‘roved’ (i.e. travelled) a lot. This may have meant that Mollie performed on the stage at the music hall, dancing to popular songs like ‘Tar ra ra boon de ay!’ and showing rather more of herself than was always considered to be ‘respectable’. She had married in May 1883 at a Kensington registry office but she refused to share her husband’s name with the court (or indeed her real address) for ‘strong family reasons’. Maybe he didn’t really exist, the pair were estranged, or, more probably, he didn’t approve of her going out drinking.

It was all very mysterious and was made more salacious when William Temple, the landlord of the Black Horse, said he remembered Mollie calling at his house and borrowing sixpence. She had been a little the worse for drink and had told him ‘he was the only man in the world she loved’. This brought the courtroom out in shared laughter and might have undermined Mollie’s case had not the bracelet and brooch seemingly really been stolen. Where were they and who had them?

Whilst Mollie Dashwood’s reputation was being dragged through the mud in open court and all sorts of conclusions were being leapt to, it was also revealed that Brown had a previous conviction for theft and so the justice decided to send the case before a jury. Brown is hardly an unusual name and nor is George so perhaps it is no surprise that I have so far been unable to see if this case ever came to trial. Given the lack of any concrete evidence against Brown and the level of doubt created by Mollie Dashwood’s ‘unladylike’ behaviour (in entering a pub on her own and drinking with a group of men at the bar) I suspect a jury would have thrown it out anyway.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 28, 1895]

‘Never was there such a bad season for cabs’: A case of non payment requires a magisterial solution

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William Capon had sold his hansom cab and horse to William Crouch because he needed the money, being unable to earn a living from cabbing. Crouch had agreed to pay for the cab in installments but by March 1835 Capon had hardly received more than a ‘farthing’ of the £30 owed to him. In desperation he issued a notice that his goods had been stolen and offered a reward for information about it.

George Hooper saw the notice and later saw the cab parked a cab rank in the City of London. He approached the driver, asked to be taken to the Green Yard where he called for the cab and horse to be impounded. The Green yard had been the City’s pound for centuries and it was here that loose animals – often beasts from Smithfield Market – were taken , to be retrieved on payment of a penalty fee. So it worked very much like a modern car pound.

The cab driver, Crouch, was arrested and taken before Alderman Pirie at Mansion House and Capon came to court to give evidence. The alderman magistrate, having heard the circumstances of the  sale of the cab and the lack of money paid so far confronted Crouch as he stood in the dock:

‘Why don’t you pay this poor man?’

‘It’s all right, sir’, said Crouch, ‘There’s an agreement in writing about the business. I’m sure to pay him’.

‘I’m sure you will never pay him; you don’t go the right way about it’, countered the justice, clearly appalled at the man’s attitude to debt.

‘I would have paid him’ Crouch answered, ‘but there’s been no business doing lately. The right time’s a coming on now, and he shall have his money’. Adding, ‘he [Capon] promised me further time, on account of the badness of the season. Never was a such a season for cabs’, he declared.

March 1835 may well have been a ‘bad season’ for cab drivers but, in the magistrate’s opinion, that didn’t give him the right to cheat (as he put it) the other man out of his money. He ordered the cab driver to return the vehicle and horse forthwith in return for any money he’d already paid over. In court Crouch agreed, but very reluctantly, but when he got outside he reneged on this and refused, citing the written agreement he had with Capon.

Alderman Pirie  was on weak ground legally; it wasn’t really a case of theft, and no jury would ever convict Crouch. Yet he wanted to do something and so he insisted that the cab and horse be handed over from the Green Yard to Capon and not to Crouch. If the latter wished to pursue his claim to the hansom he would have to take it up with the magistrate directly via the law, and not with Capon. This decision, controversial as it was, went down extremely well with everyone in court (William Crouch excepted  one assumes).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 27, 1835]

The not-so-perfect employee

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Fleet Street in the 1850s

When Sarah Morgan left Mr Williamson’s employment on 1 February 1869 she did so with such a ringing written endorsement that she soon secured a job at a lawyer’s chambers in Gray’s Inn. Williamson was sorry to see her go as she had been an excellent servant to him and his wife at the Fleet Street premises where he carried on the business of a London hosier, supplying gloves, stockings, and other goods to his City customers. It must have come as something of a shock to him when the police contacted him about her in late March of the same year.

Sarah had started work at the chambers and she was seemingly doing very well, everyone was happy with her and she was living up to the reference the hosier had provided.  It all went wrong for her when, on 23 March a young man was found hiding in her room. The police were called, initially because he was suspected of robbing the place. He was taken away but nothing was found on him to suggest he’d committed a crime. He was later charged at Bow Street but cleared of any wrong doing. This turned the attention back on Sarah.

Mr Saltmarsh, her new employer, asked to search her things and she willing agreed. He went though the two boxes she indicated were hers and he found nothing within that belonged to the Chambers. However he did find two boxes she hadn’t pointed out to him and opened these. Inside was a treasure of hosiery:

’27 pairs of kids gloves, 10 cambric handkerchiefs, and other things’ all belonging to her previous master, Mr Williamson.

In all there were goods valued at over £7 (or around  £450 in today’s money). In court before two aldermen at the Guildhall Sarah claimed these had been given to her by James Oakes, the hosier’s shopman, but he denied it when asked and  when pressed on this Sarah admitted this was a lie. She threw herself on the mercy of the court and asked to be dealt with summarily, under the terms of the Criminal Justice Act (probably the 1855 Administration of Justice Act which allowed magistrates to deal with petty thefts and some other offences if the accused agave their permission to being dealt with – and pleaded guilty to the charge).

The aldermen (Gibbons and Causton) agreed and after a brief consultation sent her to prison for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 25, 1869]

An enterprising mother and daughter team come unstuck

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St Botolph’s, Aldgate from the Minories

Cordelia Johnson ran a small manufacturing workshop in the Minories, on the borders of the East End of London and the City. The wife of a commercial traveller, Mrs Johnson employed a number of women to make up work shirts which were sold to a number of ‘outfitters and slopsellers’ in the City.  For weeks now items of her stock had been going on a daily basis and Cordelia was unable to discover how.

Eventually she turned to one of her most trusted employees, a young woman named Mary Ann Cantwell who she trusted to run errands for her as well as in the workshop sewing shirts. Mary Ann promised to help by keeping her eyes open and her ear to the ground for any hints of who was responsible for the pilfering.

Unfortunately for Mrs Johnson however, Mary Ann was the culprit. She was in league with her mother Harriet and the pair of them were engaged in a clever racket by which they stole material or fully made up shirts and pawned them at one or more of East London’s many pawnbrokers’ shops.  Mary Ann must have felt untouchable when her boss trusted her with the effort to trace the thieves and it emboldened her.

On Saturday 14 March 1857 Mary Ann spoke to one of the other younger women in the workshop and suggested she steal a pile of clothes and pawn them in Poplar. The girl, like Mary Ann, was Irish and the funds raised, she said, could be used to fuel the forthcoming St Patrick’s Day festivities. The girl was not so easily tempted however and went straight to her boss and told her what had happened. Mrs Johnson went to see the police and Police Sergeant Foay (7H) – ‘an intelligent detective officer’ – decided to follow Mary Ann to see what she was up to.

From his hiding place in Mrs Johnson’s house Sergeant Foay watched the young woman leave the factory take a pile of shirts from a cupboard and walk out of the building. He tracked her to Cannon Street Road, on the Ratcliffe Highway where she met her mother and handed over the clothes. Foay pounced and grabbed at the pair of them. HE got hold of Mary Ann but Harriett put up ‘a most determined resistance’ hitting and biting him in the process. Eventually he had them both under arrest and when they were safely locked up the police went off to search their lodgings at 13 Cannon Street Road.

There they found more evidence, namely a great number of pawnbrokers’ duplicates. These were cross checked with several ‘brokers who confirmed that they had been exchanged for shirts and materials brought by Harriet or Mary Ann. Four duplicates were found on the younger woman who, in front of Mr Selfe at Thames Police court, tried to take all the blame herself, saying her mother knew nothing of the crime.

The magistrate acknowledged this act of selfless filial duty but dismissed it. The evidence against both of them was overwhelming and both would be punished. Mary Ann was fined £6 for illegally pawning items (with a default of two months’ imprisonment if she was unable to pay, which I suspect meant she did go to gaol). If so she might have joined her 40 year-old mother whom the magistrate sent straight to prison for two months’ hard labour without even the option of paying a fine.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 20, 1857]

A woman is found guilty of something, despite the lack of evidence

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On Monday 16 March 1874 Miss Caroline Greene arrived at Paddington Station on a train from Bath; she was on route to Essex, where she lived. She left the train and was waiting for her mother to join her when a well-dressed woman in her thirties approached her. The stranger engaged her briefly in conversation and then went to move off.

At that moment William Clarke appeared and took hold of the woman, accusing her of attempting to pick Miss Greene’s pocket. The would-be thief, who gave her name as Catherine Morris, was arrested and taken before Mr Mansfield at Marylebone Police court on the following day.

In court Clarke, a sergeant in Great Western Railway’s private police force, said he had been watching Morris carefully as she worked the crowds on the platform. He’d clearly seen her dip her hand in Miss Greene’s pocket and then walk away. Caroline Greene then testified that she had felt the prisoner’s hand go into her pocket but fortunately she didn’t keep her purse there so hadn’t lost anything.

Catherine Morris vehemently denied the charge and said she’d been set up. Clarke had told the young woman what to say she added, and said she too was only waiting for a friend. Unfortunately for her  the address she’d given to the sergeant implicated her further. Detective Smith of X Division said he’d visited the house she claimed as home to discover that she’d only stayed there for 10 days. He also found out that on the previous Sunday she’d been consorting with a man who’d just been released from prison.

In court Morris refused to say where she had been staying recently and that must have helped the magistrate make up his mind that she was guilty of something, even if direct evidence of pickpocketing was circumstantial at best. He sent her to the house of correction for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 18, 1874]

The peril of children running errands on London’s streets

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I recall being dispatched to buy cigarettes for my father on several occasions in my youth, or to return ‘pop’ bottles for the deposit. Both involved a long walk (or run) down (and then back up) the hill where we lived. Running ‘errands’ like this was a common enough thing in the past but I suspect it is one of those things that no longer happens, especially with small children, given the perceived perils of modern society.

In the nineteenth century sending a child (even one as young as 7) out to fetch food or drink, or to deliver a message, was very normal. After all children worked at a much younger age and until mid century school was really only for the sons and daughters of the better off.

But the streets could be just as dangerous a place for children in the 1800s as they are today. Carts and coaches rumbled along the cobbled thoroughfares at great speed and could rarely stop in time to avoid a running child if they stepped into its path; thieves and villains lurked around every corner, and child prostitution rackets operated in the capital.

Sometimes the threat came from young people not much older than themselves, as in this case from 1855. In early March Ann Jane Hatley had been sent out with sixpence to buy some butter. She was 7 years of age and lived with her parents in Exeter Street, Chelsea. As she walked along a small boy, about 12 or 13 came up to her and asked where she was going. When she explained he said she needed to be careful of lest she drop the 6in the mud of the street.

The lad, whose name was William Smith, produced a piece of paper and said the best thing was for her to wrap her coin in it to protect it. When Ann handed over the money for him to do so he promptly ran off with it. Fortunately, a passer-by had seen what happened and set off in pursuit. William was captured and brought before the magistrate at Westminster.

In court several other children were produced who reported similar robberies on them whilst out running errands. Susannah Welsh (who was 9 or 10) had been sent to buy flour. William had followed her for ‘some distance’ before he suddenly pounced and wrestled the money she was carrying (2s) from her grasp.

Thomas Mursell (just 8) had been entrusted with 9to pay a baker’s bill when Smith approached him and asked what he was doing. When he discovered the boy had money Smith contrived to knock it out of his hand, as ‘if by accident’, and then offered him some paper to wrap it in as they pair collected it from the street. It was only when Thomas got to the baker’s shop that he realized that William had managed to steal over half of it.

There were a string of other small boys and girls with similar tales to tell but the magistrate (Mr Arnold) had heard enough. He duly committed the ‘expert juvenile highwayman’ (as Reynold’s Newspaper dubbed him) for trial before a jury.

William went for trial at the Westminster Quarter Sessions where he was convicted of two thefts (from Ann and Susannah) and sentenced to a spell in the house of detention.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1855]