Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Peasant Girl Pick-Pocket

Ilfracombe, Devon in the 1890s
My great-great-grandmother Margaret Mock was born in Braunton, Devon in 1851. Margaret was the youngest of ten children born to James Mock (1804-1882)  and Catherine Thomas (1808- ?). It is not certain when Margaret's mother died. What is known is that by 1861, James was a widower living in Ilfracombe, Devon with his daughter Mary Ann, his son George (1849-1922), my great-great-grandmother Margaret, and Mary Ann's twin daughters, Caroline (1854-1908) and Selina (1854-1922).

Margaret eventually married a mariner, Joseph Snow Pittaway (1852-1927), and moved to Watchet, Somerset. Her story is not that unusual. What is somewhat unusual is the story of two of Margaret's sisters: Mary Ann and Elizabeth.

Mary Ann was born in Braunton in 1833. When she was twenty and unmarried, she became pregnant, and twin girls were born in January of 1854. Again, not all that unusual. However, starting in 1865, Mary Ann went on to have seven more illegitimate children.

In the 1871 Census, Mary Ann's occupation is listed as laundress, however, one cannot escape the conclusion that Mary Ann had become a prostitute. Ilfracombe was an important Bristol Channel port so demand for such services would have been significant. Poverty was certainly a factor as Mary Ann's father is listed as either a Greenwich pensioner or a labourer in census data.

Mary Ann and her children did eventually gain some respectability. When Mary Ann died in 1908, a death notice appeared in the North Devon Journal. Her son John Henry Mock (1866-1938) apprenticed as a plumber and according to his obituary in the North Devon Journal was "a familiar figure in Ilfracombe" and "well-known, especially among the older inhabitants of the town."

Mary Ann's sister Elizabeth Mock was born in Braunton in 1839 and was living there with her parents in 1851. In November 1856, however, Elizabeth was charged with picking pockets at the Barnstaple Market.

The North Devon Journal's account of Elizabeth's appearance before the Barnstaple Magistrates is quite lengthy. Elizabeth had been sent by her parents to Barnstaple to pawn some of her mother's dresses, as a consequence of "wages having not been paid for the last three weeks." Having received a half crown from the pawnbroker, Elizabeth then went to the market, picked the pocket of one woman, but was caught when she tried to pick the pocket of another.

The article describes in detail the fourteen stolen items recovered including a "pink lozenge" and "a piece of red sealing-wax. The stolen coin amount to 6¾ pence. Elizabeth herself is described as a "dextrous thief" and "a peasant girl pick-pocket." The author of the article adds, "From the dexterity show by the girl in the plundering art, it was conjectured that she much have been under instruction in that line at least." No evidence, however, was presented to support this opinion. Elizabeth was committed to trial, and at the next Quarter Sessions was sentenced to six weeks imprisonment.

Five years later Elizabeth was in trouble once again, this time for stealing a quantity of bacon. In October 1860, Elizabeth entered the Newport shop of George White and asked for a halfpenny worth of milk. While the shopkeeper's wife was occupied fetching the milk, Elizabeth concealed a 2¾ pound piece of bacon beneath her cape. The theft was discovered shortly after she left the shop, and the police arrested her a few hours later.

Elizabeth was "sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour for six calendar months," which she served in the Barnstaple Gaol.

After her release, Elizabeth joined her sister Mary Ann and her father in Ilfracombe.  Like her sister, Elizabeth may have turned to prostitution, as three illegitimate children were born to her over the next few years.

It should also be mentioned that Elizabeth's father James was himself known to the police. In 1849 he had been sentenced to one month imprisonment for larceny as a consequence for stealing "two ash boards."

Elizabeth died in Ilfracombe in 1887. She was 48.


Exeter Flying Post, Thursday, 11 Jan 1849
North Devon Journal, Thursday, 29 Nov 1855
Western Times, Saturday, 19 Jan 1856
North Devon Journal, Thursday, 25 Oct 1860
North Devon Journal, Thursday, 10 Jan 1861

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