Vertical Markets

Shop theft: no such thing as good old days

by Mark Rowe

Fraudsters using fake or stolen identities and credit cards: masked robbers on mopeds bursting into jewellers or high-value clothes shops and stealing goods worth thousands and exiting at speed – quite apart from the loss to the retailer, perhaps putting the lives of passers-by at risk as they ride recklessly away. Besides such crime in high-end retail there’s the sometimes brazen thieving in clothes stores, of professional and organised gangs stuffing valuable goods such as leather jackets in bags and making off. It’s enough to make you long for the good old days of shopping, when everything was behind a counter – although thieves can use sleight of hand at counters, at post offices and bureaux de change, for example, to con the shop assistant. Sad to say, there never was such a thing as the good old days. For as long as we’ve had shops, we’ve had shoplifting, as a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary showed.

Old Bailey voices
The programme, Voices from the Old Bailey, was based on the transcripts of real cases from that London court around the 1700s. Like so much in history, they show that while things were so different in the past, some things stay the same. For instance, shoplifting was defined as a crime – and made a hanging offence – by an Act of 1699. The Leicester criminologist Prof Peter King told presenter Amanda Vickery that shopkeepers of London had petitioned Parliament: “As shops developed, so did shoplifting techniques.” The documentary took five cases, that you can read on the Old Bailey online website. You can see if an ancestor or someone of your name was a shopkeeper victim – or a shop thief!?

Hat theft
First the documentary took a February 1720 court case of Alice Jones, who stole a hat valued at ten shillings (perhaps a week’s wage in those days). She came into Edward Hillier’s central London shop and asked for a hat. He showed several. When she went out – a common enough thing to do, as people would ask to see items in the light before they bought – Hillier fetched her back in again because she was walking so oddly, she could hardly walk; it turned out she had a hat between her legs. She was found guilty and transported. In a 1759 case, a shopkeeper had his own hat stolen. John Dean, a hatter of Fenchurch Street, one mid-February Wednesday was in his cellar when somebody came in his shop. He found Elizabeth Jenkins with his own hat in her apron. Dean told the court he had left the hat near the door; Jenkins claimed it was and the floor and she was there to ask if it belonged to someone. Sentence: transportation.

Why thieve?
Why did the accused do these thefts? Some may have been genteel kleptomaniacs; some, desperate prostitutes. There may be something to be said for high-end retail making it harder for thieves than modern self-service; in a hat emporium of the 1700s, a shop might be wood-panelled and you might have to stamp your feet to get service; you had to speak politely and look well-dressed enough to get the shopkeeper’s attention and to persuade him to give you products to handle, and maybe haggle over. Shop owners and staff were suspicious. In a 1764 case, Elizabeth Glascow wanted to look at a satin bonnet and cloaks; she bid two guineas for a cloak; the shopkeeper would not take less than three. When the shopkeeper saw that lace ruffles had gone from the window, and stopped Glascow on the threshold, she dropped the ruffles on the floor. Sentence: guilty, transportation. More shoplifters were women than men; while women stole textiles, hats and accessories, men specialised in jewellery, big furniture and high-value goods generally. Women also worked in pairs. In one 1790 case from a Drury Lane shop, a woman asked the price of cottons, and made objections; then asked for cloth, and bought a yard; and then asked for some printed cotton, and objected to the print. Another woman with a children were at the other end of the counter, and the shopkeeper missed a parcel of four muslin handkerchiefs. The thieves were found guilty and sent to prison for a year (no community service then!).

Shop theft also shaded into fraud, as in the case of Lord Massey, who also went by at least two other names. In March 1791, the ‘Lord’ went to a Bond Street jeweller, asking after diamond necklaces and ear-rings, dropping the name of Lord Salisbury. As the jeweller did not have diamonds in the shop, he agreed to bring some to Massey’s lodgings nearby in St James Place. The jeweller duly handed over jewellery and got a cheque. When he took it to Coutt’s bank, however, they didn’t know the signature. It was a forgery. The court heard the deception; ‘Lord Massey’ had hired the room in St James for only a few hours; his trunks didn’t have belongings in, only bricks; and likewise Massey had only just hired his French servant from a coffee house. The accused was as smooth talking in court as he must have been to carry out the fraud; he claimed he had been ‘reviled to the utmost’. He must have known how aristocrats lived, to copy their routine; he asked the jeweller to call on him at 4pm, which meant the shopkeeper had to wait until the next morning to take the cheque to the bank. It did him no good; the jury found ‘Massey’ guilty and he was sentenced to death. A community resolution?! Whether shop theft was by the poor, to sell on or to pawn, or by hustlers who could spin a believable story, it seems there is nothing new under the sun.

For links to transcripts of each case above, visit

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