Wednesday, June 29, 2011

the mayhew files: receivers of stolen property

This installment of Scott's readings on Victorian crime from Mayhew's London details how criminals disposed of stolen items using "fences."

Inside a Victorian Pawnshop.  image source: Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration (DMVI)
While a burglar might have filched a hundred quid worth of plate and jewelry from a house or a pickpocket stole a watch from a gentleman’s coat, the loot did them no good if they could not turn it into cash.  That was where the fence, or the receiver of stolen property, came in.

In Victorian London, the real money in crime seemed to be made by these people.  These people ran either legitimate or semi-legitimate businesses so that they could dispose of the property they received from the various sorts of thieves.  While the hundred pounds might look like a promising reward for the burglar, the amount that the fence took out of that means that the burglar would, as often as not, be out on the prowl the following week.

The first type of fence for stolen goods was the proprietor of dolly shops -- illegitimate, or unlicensed pawnshops.  They were often distinguished by being undistinguished.  They flourished in areas of town like Dudley Street, where having no sign board on your store was the norm. They contained an odd variety of suspicious good, including both men’s and women’s apparel.

Because a number of these items were stolen, it was necessary for the proprietors to move around a lot as the police could become suspicious.  Any inquiry would result in evidence against them as receivers of stolen property.

These fences operated in the following way:  

For legitimate items, the shop owners paid 2d or 3d per shilling of the value of the item.  They would keep the item for about a week.  If the party had not returned in that time then they would sell the item.  If the party who sold the item returned to claim it, the owner would give them a small portion of the sale.

Another source of income for these traders were married women who came and sold their bedding sheets in exchange for money to buy liquor.  The shop keepers did a good business and amassed so many of these stolen items in their apartments that sometimes the piles of goods would block out the light of day.

It seemed that the primary area for the trade of clothes was in the East End, specifically Rosemary Lane, Petticoat Lane, and the alleys and by-ways between them. 

Contrasted to the dolly shop owners were the legitimate pawnbrokers.  These are licensed traders who, many times, were honest in their dealings and did not deal in stolen property.  They usually paid out a third or a quarter of the value of an item and then kept the item for a year before selling it. However, a fair number of them were tempted by the easy profit of stolen goods.

A burglar would often work in conjunction with a pawnbroker, letting him know in advance when a burglary was going to be attempted.  That way the goods could be transferred directly to the pawnbroker's establishment and disposed of immediately.  When this happened silver could be melted down within a quarter of an hour -- not that the burglar stuck around to watch. Not only was a look out often placed at the scene of the crime, but one was also at the location of the fence to watch out for police on patrol.

Usually silver was a good commodity for fences as they could receive almost 5s for an ounce of it.  The burglar was paid 3s 6d, or, if he’s lucky, 4s.  This was a quick profit for the fence of nearly, or more than, 1s an ounce for very little work.  If the average plate weighed an 1/8 of a pound and the burglar managed to steal a set of eight of them, then the shop owner was looking at a profit of 16s for possibly a quarter of an hour of metal work and a little risk.

Other folks ran jewelry business and keep a melted pot of silver in the back to dispose of any stolen loot that comes their way.  These fences usually gave out only a third of the value of any jewelry brought in.

There were any number of people that would receive stolen property, however, and the thieves knew the best place for them to deposit it.  There were sometimes private folks in coffee houses or brothels that knew how to dispose of the goods as well as a pawnbroker. But it was helpful to have a shop of some sort to keep up the appearance of legitimacy.

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