Stealing Lace in Old England
We may think romantically of the traditional highwayman, with hat cocked at a jaunty angle, sitting astride his coal-black steed, crying “Stand and deliver!” He would then quickly relieve the lady of her baubles and the gentleman of his purse. Yet the truth yields little such romance. A thief’s life was often short— one of squalor, petty theft, pilfering—ending on the gallows. Throughout the British Isles, a dark criminal underworld existed that consisted of pickpockets, fences, prostitutes, shoplifters, muggers, opportunists, and dishonest servants. We may recall such famous fictional characters as Fagin or Moll Flanders, but their offenses were but the fictional tip of a real iceberg, one that had existed for centuries. And one that involved copious quantities of lace.
Between 1676 and 1913, proceedings at the Old Bailey record more than 2,000 cases involving the theft of lace or a theft that included lace, showing its high value and its attraction for thieves. Fashion dictated lace’s popularity and its correspondingly high price. Its availability, portability, and ease of disposal made it a desirable target for both career criminals and casual opportunists.
Lace thieves made their money through fences who operated in public houses, retailers not overly concerned as to provenance, and various street markets, in particular Rag Fair, the London market, already in existence in 1503. Bounded by Houndsditch, Leadenhall Street, and St. Mary Axe, Rag Fair became an exchange for every type of garment, boot, shoe, hat, and fashion accessory. If an item of apparel, a bolt of cloth, or a card of lace went missing, Rag Fair was the place to look first.
Isaac “Ikey” Solomon, born in Houndsditch, was an early-nineteenth-century pawnbroker and fence. Tried at the Old Bailey in June 1810 for theft, he was sentenced to be transported to Australia for life. Inexplicably, he served four years on a Thames River “hulk,” literally a floating prison, and either escaped or was released in error, eventually returning to London in 1818 to take up his old ways. These “ways” caused his arrest in April 1827 for theft and “receiving,” including quantities of lace and bobbinet (tulle netting). He was released from Newgate Prison with the aid of friends and his father-in-law.
Ikey escaped to Denmark, and thence to New York, arriving in August 1827, only to discover that his wife had been arrested in London, convicted of similar offenses, and transported to Tasmania. Determined to join her, he sailed from New York, via Rio de Janeiro, to arrive in Hobart, Tasmania, on October 6, 1828. Many of his criminal acquaintances previously sentenced to transportation immediately recognized him. The lieutenant-governor of Tasmania applied to London for a warrant to arrest him, which arrived in November 1829. Because of a technical fault, the warrant could not be applied, and Ikey was released. The lieutenant-general then issued a warrant, and Ikey was shipped back to London.
Tried and found guilty, he was sentenced to fourteen years transportation, and he arrived in Hobart in November 1831. Freed in 1844, his hope to reestablish family life was not realized, and he died on September 3, 1850. Apart from fencing stolen lace and his notoriety at the time, he is often singled out because it is generally accepted that Isaac “Ikey” Solomon was the basis for Charles Dickens’s character Fagin in Oliver Twist.
CRIME and PUNISHMENT
From period court records and other accounts:
- 20th May 1681—Mary Clark, Ellenor Brown, indicted for stealing 35 yards (32.0 m) of black silk lace from the shop of Mr Ridgly, lace-man. Found guilty of felony; sentence, death.
- 27th February 1684—John Cary, alias Carebust, by his own confession guilty of stealing a box of black lace of considerable value, the property of Edward Johnson, a County Laceman. Found guilty; sentence, transportation to the colonies.
- 2nd July 1684—Elizabeth Owen, indicted for stealing 4 yards (3.7 m) of Colberteen Lace from Robert Fanshaw, value ten pence. Found guilty; sentence, whipping.
- 10th December 1684—Sarah Carter, alias Eden, indicted for stealing lace, linen, a silver tankard, and other goods, value five pounds and five shillings. Found guilty; sentence, death.
- Bedford Assizes 1685—Thomas Croxton and John Harmon to be hanged for robbing travelers of bone lace.
- 29th April 1685—Ann Dye, Jane Sinclo, indicted for taking a parcel of white bone lace valued forty shillings, from Margaret Walker, widow. Found guilty of felony and robbery; sentence, death.
- 24th October 1690—The Old Bailey, London Central Criminal Court: “Thomas Rowland was tried for stealing from William Bird, in the King’s Highway, on the 29th of July last, 1,000 Yards of Bone-Lace, value 1200 l [1,200 pounds sterling]. The Evidence was, That the Prisoner did confess the stealing of the Lace to one Buckle and others, but Bird was not produced against him. The Prisoner urged, That it was Malice in the Prosecutor, and denyed the Fact, but the Matter being fully proved, he was found Guilty of the Robbery.” And, being indicted of another offence at the same time, he was sentenced to death.
- 10th October 1805—George Hickton, for stealing 70 yards (64.0 m) of British white silk lace and 74 yards (67.7 m) of British black silk lace. Found guilty; sentence, seven years transportation.
- Easter 1821—Buckingham Quarter Sessions, Mary Revett, spinster and lace maker, for stealing 24 yards (21.9 m) of lace, valued at five shillings from Thomas Burman, shopkeeper and lace buyer of Olney, Buckinghamshire. Found guilty; sentence, twelve months hard labor in a House of Correction. (It is likely that this five shillings value was not a true reflection of the value; the theft of goods of more than five shillings could attract a death sentence.)
- 11th August 1828—William Cocking, for stealing 9 yards (8.2 m) of lace. Found guilty; sentence, seven years transportation.
—C. J. B. P.
For the complete article, please see PieceWork May/June 2015, page 18.
CHRISTOPHER JOHN BROOKE PHILLIPS was born in England and now lives with his wife, Patricia Ann, near Valencia, Spain. A retired businessman, he researches and writes on matters of historical interest. A completed historical novel set in the twentieth century is looking for a publisher; another novel is in the works.
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