A Case of Deception

Recently, I have been trawling through Victorian newspapers to find references as to how smock frocks were used by people in everyday situations.  Reading the papers somehow seems to bring you closer to ordinary people’s lives of the time, particularly court cases where people were cross-examined and asked to account for the minutiae of their lives such as where they were sleeping.  One such case caught my eye in particular. It shows how men on the margins of society used various strategies to get by and to live on their wits.  Reported by the Oxford Times in May 1870, the case involved two men and the theft of a pair of leggings and a smock frock.

The stealing of property, which included clothing, was a capital offence until a succession of various acts lessened the punishments during the 1820s and 1830s.  Every theft of a piece of property was a form of larceny and hence a felony and could only be tried on indictment at the Quarter Sessions even if the value of the property was only 6d or 1s.  This led to the somewhat harsh sentencing for seemingly low value crimes.    Therefore as a felony, the consequences of carrying out such a crime could be harsh, although generally reserved for repeat offenders.  Items of clothing were often the most valuable personal item that people owned and could not just be lost. Today, in the era of cheap clothing, we tend to forget the value of our clothing.  It could not be forgotten in the nineteenth century.

James Baker, a labourer of Waterstock, Oxfordshire, left his smock frock overnight, in the shed of Mr Griffiths, who he was presumably working for, between 5pm and 6am the following day, by which time it had gone missing.  John McDonnell was tramping around the countryside, basically walking from place to place in search of work.  He had recently been in prison for fourteen days, having been convicted of vagrancy.  The Vagrancy Act 1824 (5 Geo. 4. c. 83) is an Act Of Parliament that makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg, sections of which are still enforced today.     So he was obviously fighting for survival on the edge of society for whatever reason.  He told the court he went into Mr Griffith’s cow shed to sleep, presumably as it was warm and dry and he would be less obvious than sleeping outside, and there he spotted the abandoned smock frock, along with leggings.  Such clothing, even if not taken to be worn, had a small value on the second hand clothing market.

Setting off the following morning, ‘to go on the tramp’ on the road to Reading, he met up with a man in similar circumstances named William Pace.  McDonnell asked Pace to sell the leggings onto another man for him, Pace not knowing they were stolen.  Apparently this was unsuccessful and instead McDonnell urged Pace to wear them instead as he was unwell and very tired and they had to sleep in the open that night.  They slept under some straw where they were found the following day by a policeman at 10 or 11am, who seemed to have been on their trail.

Immediately Pace said that he had made the leggings and McDonnell that he had been given the smock by a farmer in Lincolnshire.  They were both sent for trial although McDonnell claimed that Pace was innocent.

This small snapshot of three ordinary people’s lives over the course of forty-eight hours shows the historian several interesting things. Firstly that the leggings, who belonged to James Silver who was working alongside James Baker, and the smock frock were considered valuable enough, either for monetary reasons or that they would be unable to function properly at their work without their protective clothing, or probably both, to call a policeman and for him to trail the possible suspects. The leggings were stated as being worth 3 shillings, the second hand value of smock frocks was similar, although they were more expensive to buy new.  They were both too expensive to simply loose or let disappear, representing a substantial part of a week’s wages.

Secondly, that there was definitely an air of comradeship for those in similar circumstances, certainly in this case, on the tramp.  McDonnell was worried about Pace’s health and prepared to defend his innocence, Pace was prepared to risk his innocence by selling the leggings for McDonnell although he may well have suspected that they might be stolen.  There is no indication that they previously knew each other.

Thirdly, the mobility of the population.  It is nearly thirty miles between Waterstock and Reading but this was not seen as unreasonable, although they could have been trying to put some distance between them and the scene of the crime.  They were found at Chalgrove, just over half way there. Once in Reading, McDonnell and Pace could have disposed of the clothes for cash to a second-hand dealer, who would not have been warned that they might be stolen.  The policeman caught them before they had gone too far and the clothes were still identifiable.  The Lincolnshire reference also shows how usual this was, to go from one part of the country to the other, McDonnell presumably choosing Lincolnshire as again it would be difficult to check the veracity of his tale but it was not unlikely.

This is a small a paragraph in one newspaper but it highlights both the struggles of the labourers with work to hold onto their property and maintain their livelihoods and the tough life of those right on the margins, before the safety net of the welfare state.  The smock frock leads us into their histories.

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