Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Dog Thieves of Victorian England

From London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew comes this section on the dog thieves of Victorian England:

Before I describe the present condition of the street-trade in dogs, which is principally in spaniels, or in the description well known as lap-dogs, I will give an account of the former condition of the trade, if trade it can properly be called, for the 'finders' and 'stealers' of dogs ...

I cannot better show the extent and lucrativeness of this trade, than by citing a list which one of the witnesses before Parliament, Mr. W. Bishop, a gun maker, delivered in to the Committee, of 'cases in which money had recently been extorted from the owners of dogs by dog-stealers and their confederates.' There is no explanation of the space of time included under the vague term 'recently'; but the return shows that 151 ladies and gentlemen had been the victims of the dog-stealers or dog- finders, for in this business the words were, and still are to a degree, synonyms, and of these 62 had been so victimized in 1843 and in the six months of 1844, from January to July. The total amount shown by Mr. Bishop to have been paid for the restoration of stolen dogs was 977 guineas or an average of 6 guineas and 10 shilling per individual practised upon.

These dog appropriators, as they found that they could levy contributions not only on royalty, foreign ambassadors, peers, courtiers, and ladies of rank, but on public bodies, and on the dignitaries of the state, the law, the army, and the church, became bolder and more expert in their avocations — a boldness which was encouraged by the existing law. Prior to the parliamentary inquiry, dog-stealing was not an indictable offence. The only mode of punishment for dog-stealing was by summary conviction, the penalty being fine or imprisonment; but Mr. Commissioner Mayne did not known of any instance of a dog-stealer being sent to prison in default of payment. Although the law recognized no property in a dog, the animal was taxed; and it was complained at the time that an unhappy lady might have to pay tax for the full term upon her dog, perhaps a year and a half after he had been stolen from her. One old offender, who stole the Duke of Beaufort's dog, was transported, not for stealing the dog, but his collar.

The difficulty of proving the positive theft of a dog was extreme. In most cases, where the man was not seen actually to seize a dog which could be identified, he escaped when oarried before a magistrate. 'The dog-stealers,' said Inspector Shackel, 'generally go two together; they have a piece of liver; they say it is merely bullock's liver, which will entice or tame the wildest or savagest dog which there can be in any yard; they give it to him, and take him from his chain. At other times,' continues Mr. Shackel, 'they will go in the street with a little dog, rubbed over with some sort of stuff, and will entice valuable dogs away If there is a dog lost or stolen, it is generally known within five or six hours where that dog is, and they know almost exactly what they can get for it, so that it is a regular system of plunder.' Mr. G. White, 'dealer in live stock, dogs, and other animals,' and at one time a 'dealer in lions, and tigers, and all sorts of things,' said of the dog-stealers: 'In turning the corners of streets there are two or three of them together; one will snatch up a dog and put into his apron, and the others will stop the lady and say, "What is the matter?" and direct the party who has lost the dog in a contrary direction to that taken.'

In this business were engaged from 50 to 60 men, half of them actual stealers of the animals. The others were the receivers, and the go-betweens or 'restorers.' The thief kept the dog perhaps for a day or two at some public-house, and he then took it to a dog-dealer with whom he was connected in the way of business. These dealers carried on a trade in 'honest dogs,' as one of the witnesses styled them (meaning dogs honestly acquired), but some of them dealt principally with the dog-stealers. Their depots could not be entered by the police, being private premises, without a search-warrant — and direct evidence was necessary to obtain a search-warrant — and of course a stranger in quest of a stolen dog would not be admitted. Some of the dog-dealers would not purchase or receive dogs known to have been stolen, but others bought and speculated in them. If an advertisement appeared offering a reward for the dog, a negotiation was entered into. If no reward was offered, the owner of the dog, who was always either known or made out, was waited upon by a restorer, who undertook 'to restore the dog if terms could be come to.' A dog belonging to Colonel Fox was once kept six weeks before the thieves would consent to the Colonel's terms. One of the most successful restorers was a shoemaker, and mixed little with the actual stealers; the dog-dealers, however, acted as restorers frequently enough. If the person robbed paid a good round sum for the restoration of a dog, and paid it speedily, the animal was almost certain to be stolen a second time, and a higher sum was then demanded. Sometimes the thieves threatened that if they were any longer trifled with they would inflict torture on the dog, or cut its throat. One lady, Miss Brown of Bolton-street, was so worried by these threats, and by having twice to redeem her dog, 'that she has left England,' said Mr. Bishop, 'and I really do believe for the sake of keeping the dog.' It does not appear, as far as the evidence shows, that these threats of torture or death were ever carried into execution; some of the witnesses had merely heard of such things.

'His less popular, but more upright father, had once been a dog-fancier, and George, after many years' vicissitude, at length took a "fancy" to the same profession, but not on any principles recognized by commercial laws. With what success he has practised, the ladies and gentlemen about the West-end have known, to their loss and disappointment, for more than fifteen years past have been and still are on the alert, George has, in every instance, hitherto escaped punishment, while numerous detections connected with escape have enabled the offender to hold these officials at defiance. The "modus operandi" upon which George proceeds is to varnish his hands with a sort of gelatine, composed of the coarsest pieces of liver, fried, pulverized, and mixed up with tincture of myrrh.' This is the composition of which Inspector Shackel spoke before the Select Committee, but he did not seem to know of what the lure was concocted. My correspondent continues: 'Chelsea George caresses every animal who seems "a likely spec," and when his fingers have been rubbed over the dogs' noses they become easy and perhaps willing captives. A bag carried for the purpose, receives the victim, and away goes George, bag and all, to his printer's in Seven Dials. Two bills and no less — two and no more, for such is George's style of work — are issued to describe the animal that has thus been found, and which will be "restored to its owner on payment of expenses." One of these George puts in his pocket, the other he pastes up at a public-house whose landlord is "fly" to its meaning, and poor "bow-wow" is sold to a "dealer in dogs," not very far from Sharp's alley. In course of time the dog is discovered; the possessor refers to the "establishment" where he bought it; the "dealer makes himself square" by giving the address of "the chap he bought 'un of," and Chelsea George shows a copy of the advertisement, calls in the publican as a witness, and leaves the place "without the slightest imputation on his character." Of this man's earnings I cannot speak with precision: it is probable that in a "good year" his clear income is 200 guineas in a bad year but 100., but, as he is very adroit, I am inclined to believe that the "good" years somewhat predominate, and that the average income may therefore exceed 150 pounds yearly.'

1 comment:

TEC said...

It bears remembering, IMO, that private and parliamentary enclosure movements (of which you have extensively written so well), lasting for centuries up to the 19th, produced armies of farmers and workers displaced from rural England to industrial cities. Fortunately, some were able to find menial low-class work on the streets, and others managed on the margins of law and society. Most had no part creating their lot in life. It was foisted on them by law and the times. A little ditty found in varying versions from the 17th century sums up feelings:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from off the goose. -- Anonymous

As you say, Henry Mayhew was indeed remarkable. His ability to gain trust in order to obtain in-depth interviews of the commonest man/woman speaks to his personality and concern for their plight. We should all go to sea, if that would allow us to relate to our fellow men/women. Would like to think that Mayhew and Charles Dickens were at least nodding acquaintances. -- TEC