It’s always nice to see a bit of compassion evident in the verdicts of 19th century jurors – after all, it wasn’t always displayed, and many a poor man and woman ended up at the gallows despite, to modern eyes, having valid reasons for having committed some thefts, for example.
But one case before the Surrey magistrates in 1838 saw a man sympathised with for being so hungry that he stole a pair of trousers – not in order to eat the trousers, but to sell them on in order to be able to buy a bit of food.
The man was Thomas Miles, described in The Times as “a poor, half-famished-looking-fellow”.
He was of weak intellect, and had been unable to find any work. After having failed to find anything to eat for two days, he had applied to the local Poor Law Guardians for relief.
Despite telling the guardians that he had not eaten, they rejected his appeal. Instead, they said:
“Go about your business, and get work, and earn your bread.”
Thomas left the guardians – but he had tried and failed to find work already. He was desperate – and desperately hungry. He was about to walk past a clothes dealer’s shop, when he noticed a pair of trousers hanging up on a hook outside, ready to tempt buyers.
He grabbed them off the hook, thinking that he could sell them to a second hand dealer, and make a few pence for some bread – just like the guardians had told him to.
Unfortunately, not being very quick, Thomas had failed to notice other shoppers watching him. He was chased, and caught, still with the trousers in his hand.
Yet although he was quickly found guilty of theft at the next sessions the jury recommended him to mercy, apparently blaming the clothes dealer more than Thomas:
“We recommend him to mercy, principally on account of the temptation held out by the shopkeeper in hanging such articles outside his door, which was an inducement for the hungry.”
Thomas Miles was lucky, then, in one respect. He was committed to Brixton Gaol for one month, which meant a full month of being fed – something which the poor law guardians were not able to do for him.
Story taken from The Times, 7 February 1838, page 7