Source, Women's History

Women, Clothing and Theft

14th July 1731, Old Bailey Court, London. Martha Brannan, Mary Row, Eleanor Gore, and Mary Fitzgerald, were indicted, the two former for feloniously stealing divers wearing Apparel, Linen and Woollen, in the Dwelling-House of Henry Brand, the 5th of this Instant July; and the two former for receiving them, knowing them to have been stolen.

Anne Brand depos’d, That the Prisoner was her Servant, and went away with the Goods about Six o’Clock in the Morning, before she herself was up.

 John Jones, a Watchman, depos’d, That he seized Martha Brannan and Mary Row with Bundles of the Prosecutor’s Goods, at Three o’Clock in the Morning, and suspecting them, secured them; that Eleanor Gore coming to them, and pretending to call some Persons to give an Account of them, did pawn a Hood of the Prosecutor’s at a Brandy-shop, and that a Bundle of the Goods was found in the Cellar where Mary Fitzgerald, the Mother of Martha Brannan, lodged.

Martha Brannan pleaded, That she was inticed to do it by Mary Row, who promised to help her to a Husband worth 200 l. a Year, telling her, she must have Clothes to make her appear handsome.

The Fact being fully proved against Martha Brannan and Mary Row, the Jury found them Guilty to the Value of 4 s. 10 d. each; but there not being sufficient Evidence that Eleanor Gore and Mary Fitzgerald knew that the Goods were stolen, they were acquitted.

The market in second-hand clothing flourished during the eighteenth century- an era where clothes were expensive and often hard-wearing. Servants were frequently given clothing by their masters as part of their wages or as a bonus that could become part of their wardrobes or sold on the second-hand market for cash. New clothes were expensive so the poor relied on the second-hand clothing market to dress themselves affordably; while taking apart old clothes to make new, resizing clothing and re-using material were vital skills for the frugal housewife.

The relatively high-value of clothing meant that it was often an integral resource for women, who could pawn clothes for extra cash when they needed it- buying it back when they were next paid. Clothing and linen were a central part of a bride’s dowry and these goods were often customarily seen as part of a women’s property, even after marriage (where in many countries they became part of the husband’s property)- giving them consumables that could be turned into cash when they needed it. In Scotland, married women’s clothing and jewellery belonged to them in law, so that husbands could not sell it or take it from them, and neither could his creditors, offering a useful resource when money was tight.  

The financial value of clothing also led to it being a popular item for thieves. Servants were commonly accused of theft, and, for many, pillaging the linens or laundry was vital to maintaining their incomes. Women, who often had access to clothing as maids and laundresses, were frequently prosecuted for clothing theft, and the network of thieves and receivers suggest that women were central to both clothing theft rings and the second-hand clothing market. Women’s association with fashion was not just a frivolity, but the central role in played in many female economies.

Further Reading

Garthine Walker, Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England, (Cambridge UP, 2003).

For lots more criminal cases see:

Katie Barclay is currently researching Irish masculinity. She finds the social significance of clothing fascinating. 

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