by Shelley Tickell (University of Hertfordshire)
Shoplifting in Eighteenth Century England is published by Boydell and Brewer Press. SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 5th March 2019. See below for details.
What would you choose to buy from a store if money was no object? This was a decision eighteenth-century shoplifters made in practice on a daily basis. We might assume them to be attracted to the novel range of silk and cotton textiles, foodstuffs, ornaments and silver toys that swelled the consumer market in this period. Demand for these home-manufactured and imported goods was instrumental in a trebling of the number of English shops in the first half of the century, escalating the scale of the crime. However, as my book Shoplifting in Eighteenth-Century England shows, this was not the case. Consumer desire was by no means shoplifters’ major imperative.
Shoplifting occurred nationwide, but it was disproportionately a problem in the capital. A study of a sample of the many thousand prosecutions at the Old Bailey reveals that linen drapers, shoemakers, hosiers and haberdashers were the retailers most at risk. Over 70% of goods stolen, particularly by women, were fabrics, clothing and trimmings. Though thefts were highly gendered, men also stole these items far more frequently than the food, jewellery and household goods which were largely their preserve. Yet items stolen were not predominantly the most fashionable. Traditional linens, wool stockings and leather shoes were stolen as often as silk handkerchiefs and cotton prints. A prolific shoplifter who confessed to her crime found it profitable over the course of a year to steal printed linen at four times the quantity of the more stylish cotton, lawns, muslins and silk handkerchiefs she also took.
The shoplifters prosecuted were overwhelmingly from plebeian backgrounds. Professional gangs did exist but for most the crime was a source of occasional subsistence. Shop thieves came from the most economically vulnerable sections of society, seeking to weather an urban economy of low-paid and insecure work; many were older women or children. As the stolen goods needed to be convertible to income they were very commonly sold. So thieves sought the items which were most negotiable, those in greatest demand and least conspicuous in the working neighbourhoods in which they lived. A parcel of handkerchiefs stolen unopened was found to be ‘too fine’ for a market seller to whom it was offered. While there was undoubtedly an eagerness for popular fashion, the call for neat and appropriate daily dress in working communities was as insistent. We find the frequency with which shoplifters stole different types of clothing is consistent with a market demand governed in great part by the customary turnover of clothing items in labouring families. Handkerchiefs, shoes and stockings which were replaced regularly, were stolen frequently, jackets and stays more rarely.
There were also some practical reasons why shoplifters avoided the high-fashion goods that elite shops sold. To enter the emporiums in which the rich shopped added a heightened degree of risk. Testimony confirms shopkeepers’ deep reluctance to suspect any customer who appeared genteel, but in elite areas such as London’s West End retailers had an established clientele and a new face was likely to draw attention. A few shoplifters did try their luck by making an effort to dress the part and their polite fashioning and acting skill, witnesses recall, was often masterly. But an accidental slip into plebeian manners was easily done. Three customers dressed in silk drew the suspicion of a Covent Garden shopwoman as, she explained, ‘they called me my dear in a very sociable way’.
In general, shoplifters restricted themselves to plundering smaller local shops that were convenient to reconnoitre and with fewer staff to mount surveillance. A mapping of incidents in London shows this bias towards poorer and less fashionable districts, particularly to the north and east of the capital. The research found that within these working neighbourhoods shoplifted goods played an instrumental role in the intricate social and economic relations that underpinned community survival. Local associates earned money selling or pawning goods for the thief, their reputation serving to give the transaction an added credibility. Neighbours were informally sold stolen items on favourable terms, often including an element of exchange and credit, which acted to secure their complicity and future loyalty. We also come across shoplifted goods that were pawned to fund the shoplifter’s ongoing business or even recommodified as stock for their small retail concerns. Need rather than consumption fever motivated these shoplifters. Shoplifting was a capital crime throughout the century but this seems to have been of very little moment when the dictate was economic survival. As a shoplifter bluntly testified of her friend in 1747, ‘The prisoner came to me to go with her to the prosecutor’s shop, she wanted money, and she should go to the gallows’.
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