Preston clothing thief gets seven years’ penal servitude

Fishergate where the stolen clothes were handed to a pawnbroker
Fishergate where the stolen clothes were handed to a pawnbroker
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Local historian Keith Johnson looks at a crime from yesteryear...

In June 1864, Esther Wilson, aged 15, along with Mary Anne Brady, Henry Bower, and John Wilson appeared at Preston Police Court on a charge of stealing a pair of ladies boots from a Preston pawnbroker.

There was little evidence to incriminate the men and they were discharged, with the magistrates sentencing both the young women to three months’ imprisonment.

Once again in December 1865, Esther Wilson appeared before the Preston Police Court, accused of stealing a shawl and a skirt, the property of James Whittle. On this occasion the young offender being sentenced to six months in prison.

By June, 1867, this compulsive offender was up before the magistrates at the Belfast Police Court, being described as a native of Preston and the wife of a hawker. A Paisley shawl and a black silk dress had gone missing from a lodging house. She was remanded in custody for a week, but lack of proof led to her release.

In late February 1869, Preston’s Chief Constable James Dunn was in touch with the Metropolitan Police with a telegraphed message.

Intelligence gathered by him suggested that Esther Wilson, who was described as a young woman of respectable appearance, was suspected of stealing clothes, and was on her way to London by train.

The London police acted swiftly and Inspector Cunningham arrested her on arrival and she was taken to Spitalfield police station, in Whitechapel. Despite denying the theft, she was on her way back to Preston the next day, accompanied by Inspector Cunningham.

The following morning she appeared before the Preston magistrates at the Preston Police Court and was committed for trial at the forthcoming Preston Intermediate Sessions.

With a busy court schedule, the case was heard in the Second Court before a bench chaired by Peter Catterall Esq.

Amongst the witnesses called was Richard Bethel, a lodging house keeper, who identified Wilson and he explained how the clothes had been taken from an upstairs room. The court heard that she had spent two nights in the lodging house in Byron Street and that after her departure, a black suit, a silk dress, a ball gown and various other items had gone missing.

It was stated that, when taken into custody, she was wearing a skirt identified as stolen, and it was reported that the dresses and the suit had been recovered from pawnshops in Friargate, Fishergate and on Marsh Lane. Diligent police work had led to their discovery and also a pawn ticket found in her possession was for a missing merino dress. In her defence it was stated that Leonard Clark, who was an alleged deserter from the Army, now being held at Fulwood Barracks, had testified at the earlier hearing that he had seen a woman called Bailey hand the accused some clothes to take to the pawnbrokers. Nonetheless it was suggested by the prosecution that the pair had collaborated whilst in the cells at Preston. The chairman offered the prisoner an opportunity to address the jury, but she declined.

After carefully considering the evidence, the jury returned a guilty verdict. It was then stated that she had previous convictions for theft and a sentence of penal servitude for seven years was passed. The chief constable was critical of the pawnbrokers of Preston, suggesting that they had been far from helpful during their investigations and in future, if necessary, search warrants would be issued.