Stealing underwear in Victorian London

Theft was endemic in Victorian London. Going through court records, one encounters a constant flood of petty stealing. And it wasn’t just precious items like gold watches and jewellery but clothes, bed covers, trousers and even underwear! You have to think of a world where many people had next to nothing. Such was the miserable state of 51 year old Margaret Devine, who lived in the Poplar workhouse in east London.

Victorian drawers
Victorian “drawers” for ladies

On June 23rd, 1890, she faced court proceedings at the Old Bailey accused of stealing a quilt, a jacket and a pair of ladies drawers (very big knickers!) from a woman called Margaret Driscoll.  The victim lived at 40 Sophia Street in Poplar and in her testimony, told the court:

I went to bed about nine, in the back room—I shut the outer door of the house when my daughter went out, and left it on the latch—a little after twelve she came home, she woke me up, and I found the bedclothes gone off the bed in the front room, and a pair of flannel drawers, two quilts, and a jacket—I went out and spoke to a constable, and afterwards went with him to Poplar Workhouse, where I saw the prisoner and the things I had missed—in going to the station I said to the prisoner, “Where are my drawers?”—she said, “I will give them to you by-and-by.

Maria Middleton, a female “searcher” at Poplar police station, strip searched Devine and found she was wearing the stolen drawers. The constable who went with Driscoll to the workhouse reported that Devine made the usual lame excuses of any thief about having got the goods from somebody in the street they had never met. For her crime, the light fingered Devine was sentenced to one month’s hard labour.

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