Heritage: Was Rush Green woman’s shoplifting conviction a miscarriage of justice?

Should mercy have been shown to the Rush Green shoplifter?

Should mercy have been shown to the Rush Green shoplifter? - Credit: Archant

When I first read about the conviction of Rush Green woman Maria Kelly for shoplifting in 1893, it seemed an amusing episode of brass-necked pilfering.

But as I dug deeper, the story became darker. Was there a miscarriage of justice? Did Maria need help, not punishment?

Twenty-six-year-old Maria Tooley and 40-year-old builder Conrad Kelly had been both married before when they wed in 1876. She had a small boy, he was father of at least five children. They would have six more together.

Around 1880, they moved to Romford, living first in Junction Road. By 1887, they’d gone to a new development at Rush Green. Isolated beyond Romford cemetery in the fields towards Dagenham, Birkbeck Road was perhaps not a smart address.

But Conrad Kelly was moderately prosperous. He owned property, almost certainly houses he’d built for rental. He’d retired by 1901. He must have had an assured income to quit work: there was no state pension until 1909.

Maria was “respectably dressed” when Samuel Thompson nabbed her in his South Street fish shop in November 1893. It was Wednesday, market day, when Romford was busy. Thompson also sold shopping bags, with fancy designs. He didn’t trust Maria.

She purchased some prawns, popped them in one of Thompson’s bags and was leaving when he stopped her.

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It was a mistake, she insisted. She had a similar bag at home and had momentarily confused the two.

“You make so many mistakes,” Thompson drily retorted.

Romford magistrates adjourned the case for two weeks so she could produce the bag that had caused the alleged confusion. She re-appeared with one that was a different shape and colour.

Court procedure then broke down. “I’ve spent pounds in his shop,” Maria protested. “Yes, and you’ve taken pounds too,” Thompson retorted.

“It was purely accidental, and my character has been disgraced dreadfully over it, already. I don’t suffer from kleptomania, and I never took anything in my life,” Maria claimed.

The magistrates asked Inspector Willsmer if Maria was known to the police.

“She’s not been before the court,” he replied but “I have had many people come to me about her.”

An aggressive solicitor would have slammed the magistrates for allowing unsubstantiated hearsay, and bullied them into letting her go. Unfortunately, Rush Green housewives did not hire lawyers.

Maria was fined £1, plus costs, or 14 days in prison with hard labour. She was still in the cells when the court rose. Maybe Conrad was at work. I hope he paid the fine: Chelmsford Gaol was no holiday camp.

Of course, Inspector Willsmer did not invent the complaints against Maria. It’s interesting that she used the word “kleptomaniac”. That was a specialist medical term, suggesting that maybe she’d consulted a doctor about her unorthodox shopping habits.

Nowadays, magistrates would ask for a psychiatric report, but no such support was available then.

Things went downhill for Maria Kelly. Two years later, she was arrested “helplessly drunk” late at night in Romford High Street. She had “several previous convictions”.

The 1901 census locates Conrad a couple of streets away, in Wolseley Road, Rush Green. He was a widower.

No doubt Maria Kelly was a pest to honest shopkeepers. But she needed help, not humiliation.