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Friday 24th January 2020

Interior scene with two thieves breaking into a bedroom, aquatint by Thomas Molten after Thomas Rowlandson’s ‘House-breakers’, 1788, published by S. W. Fores in London, 1791. The intruders are entering the room brandishing pistols at the couple and the man is stepping out from between the drapes of the bed pointing a blunderbuss at the burglars, with his partner holding him around the waist

The only visitors no one is looking forward to are – house thieves. ‘A Complete Guide for a Servant-maid; or, the Sure Means of gaining Love and Esteem’ a book from our collection, from c.1787, writes about Georgian home robbers. Published in London, under the invented author’s name Ann Walker, the book is a plagiarism of Eliza Haywood’s ‘Present for a Servant-maid’, first published in 1743. Among other things, it advises maids how to keep their workplace and themselves safe by being aware at all times of day of thieves trying to sneak in: ‘Neither is it enough that you are careful in barring all the doors and windows to guard against the house being robbed. The night is not the only season in which those invaders of the properties of others are in search for prey. Experience teaches us, that the day has been sometimes no less favourable to them; vizard and the formidable dark lanthorn they have then indeed no occasion for; but by appearing less themselves, are not less dangerous. It is not then their business to affright but to deceive; and so many stratagems they abound with for compassing this end, that you cannot be too much warned against them. Where lodgings are to be let, they frequently watch an opportunity of the family being gone abroad, and under the pretence of seeing some apartment, get entrance, bind, gag, or perhaps murder the maid, and plunder the house of every thing valuable in it.’

Cast iron door knocker with lion’s head

The same book also advised that one should be weary of opening the door to strangers, who could be robbers in disguise: ‘On Sundays, in the time of divine service, when the family are at church, it is very dangerous to open the door to any one that knocks, especially in squares or streets, where many people are not continually passing, or fitting at doors or windows, as they are apt to do in little lanes and courts: I would therefore advise you to answer all strangers that shall

Mezzotint on paper by Philip Dawe, after Henry Morland’s ‘The Laundry Maid’, published in London in 1774

come at that time from an upper window; for several houses have been robbed by the inadvertency of a servant, who, on opening the door, has given admittance to villains in the shape of gentlemen. It would be not only endless, but likewise impossible to recount the various stratagems they put in practice; I shall, therefore, content myself with reminding you, to let no person, who is not perfectly known to you, into the house, either when you are alone in it, or early in the morning before the family is up. They have come sometimes as footmen, with a message from some person, whose name they make use of as a sanction; sometimes as porters with a basket from an inn, with a present from the country; sometimes as a neighbour’s servant (especially if you are lately come, and unacquainted) desiring leave to light a candle. But whatever their pretences be, let them wait; better to seem unmannerly, than by your carelessness expose your master and mistress to be robbed and yourself murdered.’



Illustration from a catalogue of the Museum of the Home collection

Thieves also had special tricks they might play: ‘There are your little pilferers too, no less impudent or artful than those who rob by wholesale, who watch the opportunity of a sash being up in a parlour window, to snatch out any thing within their reach, and some of them having long sticks with hooks, which will easily bring out a cloak, hat, or any other thing that happens to hang up. Some of these have had the boldness to knock, and ask to speak with the mistress of the family, when

Victorian hat stand shown in a page of ‘Bartholomew & Fletcher: Decorators & General House Furnishers: Cabinet Makers and Upholsterers’, an illustrated catalogue showcasing carved oak furniture, printed by Newman & Son, London, c.1870-1900

they have seen she has been in an upper room: and on being asked to walk into the parlour, and left alone while the maid goes up to inform her mistress, have swept away whatever the beaufet afforded; so that on no account, nor at any time, can you safely give entrance to one you know not.’

From street pickpocketing to serious house robbery, there is one more book of the same period, also in our library, that warned against various crime activities of city thieves;` ‘The London adviser and guide: containing every instruction and information useful and necessary to persons living in London, and coming to reside there; In order to enable them to enjoy Security and Tranquillity, and conduct their Domestic Affairs with Prudence and Economy. Together with an abstract Of all those Laws which regard their Protection against the Frauds, Impositions, Insults and Accidents to which they are there liable’ by the Rev. Dr. John Trusler was printed in London in 1786. It advises: ‘Never step in between persons quarrelling in the street, unless you chuse to have your pocket picked. These are often sham-quarrels, to collect people together for the opportunity of plundering them.’ It also warns you to be weary of your neighbours: ‘If the house next door to you is empty, be cautious and fasten your back-doors, and inside-shutters of the upper windows; for villains will now and then secrete themselves in such empty houses, and, in the night, get into the adjoining house, by the back-doors or windows, or from the leads.Your garret-windows therefore should always be secured, and trap-doors opening to the leads well bolted.’

Iron key for unknown chest/coffer with metal lever, dated between 1580 and 1650


In the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s people increasingly bought various household items that were lockable. That way secret or valuable possessions they feared would be seen or stolen were stored within and were hidden or kept safe from thieves, servants, guests or even family members.

This man did not have those fears. It is a common observation that crime in the modern world, including robbery, burglary and theft, is prevailingly a male activity. The studies suggest that percentage of female criminals was also smaller than percentage of male criminals in early modern England, but also that it kept declining throughout the second half of the 1700s and in the 1800s. For the percentage of women involved in crime in the 1700s, larceny was very common. An untitled mezzotint on paper, showing a scene in a bedroom, in which a woman is stealing a stocking purse and pocket watch from a sleeping man, dated c.1790.


An elaborately decorated lock of a walnut-veneered writing cabinet bearing the trade label of John Guilbaud, a cabinet-maker known to be working in Long Acre, London, between 1693 and 1712

From tea caddies to cupboards and chests of drawers, writing, display and phonograph cabinets and all other sorts of cabinets, storage chests and writing boxes – all could have a lock. Servants were often accused, unjustly or not, of stealing, and their masters and mistresses never fully trusted them, keeping their possessions under lock and key. Lockable objects could not secure the amount of change brought by a servant after shopping at the market and that often stayed a stumbling block to the master’s trust.

It was already a practice in the Georgian period for internal doors to be provided with locks. We can still see this today in houses built in Victorian times that have original internal doors and on the cupboard doors (that could be the same size as the room doors), which also have locks. ‘The Unfortunate Discovery’ is a satirical hand-coloured mezzotint, from the original picture by John Collet, published 24 July 1777. An elderly woman enters the room to see her husband standing on tiptoes and about to embrace the chamber maid, her broom falling between them, a copy of ‘An Essay on Woman’ in his pocket. Behind these doors is a hidden side of domestic life with the vulnerable position of domestic workers.

When not under lock and key, there are many unpredictable situations in which valuables go missing. This mezzotint on paper by Valentine Green after Edward Penny’s ‘The Profligate Punished by Neglect and Contempt’, 1775,  shows a small boy using the moments of commotion for stealing a stocking purse. Stocking purses, also known as misers’ or wallet purses, could be carried in the hand, bag or pocket, or tucked over a belt. Many of them were made as presents, and were thought a suitable object to give to a gentleman (see link in reference for an example­).[1]

The Lion and the Mouse: Sweet Mercy is Nobility’s True Badge’, by Rebecca Solomon, 1865. It depicts a young man who has been caught poaching and brought before the landowner from whom he has stolen. A young girl hugs the landowner, looking at him with a pleading expression, asking for mercy for the boy

Before Victorian times no distinction was made between criminals of any age, with young children being sent to adult prison and records of children aged twelve being hanged. Victorians increasingly questioned this, feeling that this would lead to a life of crime. A step towards treating children differently was the Juvenile Offences Act of 1847, which said that young people under 14 (soon raised to 16) should be tried in a special court, not an adult court. But Victorians still believed firmly in stiff punishments and in 1854 Reformatory Schools were established for offenders under 16 years old- tough places with stiff discipline enforced by frequent beatings. Young people were sent there for long sentences -usually several years – that were designed to separate the child from the bad influences of home and environment, but they normally still began their sentence with a brief spell in an adult prison.[2]

In the collection are a series of twelve plot-linked prints from engravings, called Industry and Idleness, by William Hogarth, published  in 1747. What relates the series to our theme is its depiction of the path of a character’s degradation. The prints show Thomas Idle’s path of immorality and crime to complete disgrace and legal infamy. The ninth print shows Idle’s immorality and crime acts deepen-he has gone from a robbery to a murder for petty gain. He is shown sitting with another criminal looking at some stolen watches in a hat, while another man pitches a body down a trap door, all of them being oblivious to the police raid on their thieves’ den and to the act of Idle’s prostitute being paid for her information.

In the last decades of the Georgian era there seemed to be a rising crime rate in Britain, from about 5,000 recorded crimes per year in 1800 to 20,000 per year in the 1830s.[3] The Victorians were eager to make criminals face up to their responsibilities and punish them for their acts, and many new prisons were built in Britain from the 1840s. They were sure their efforts against crime were fruitful and from the middle of the 1800s the annual publication of Judicial Statistics for England and Wales could prove that almost all forms of crime appeared to be falling. There are serious problems with official statistics of crime, as we know that there was a practice in the Metropolitan Police until the 1930s to list many reported thefts as lost property. Many poorer Victorians, who had little faith in, or respect for, the police, probably did not bother to report offences. However, the combination of better economic circumstances in the country, more severe punishments for violent behavior, and new police forces, may well have had an impact on reducing some crime activities. Whether the Victorians were right to think that crime was in decline must remain an open question.’[4]


Tijana Cvetkovic, Curatorial Volunteer













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