Stealing Geography

Old Bailey

“Old Bailey”. Plate 58 from The Microcosm of London (1808–10).

Whilst historians of geography have devoted considerable attention to the publication and reception of geographical texts, relatively little consideration has been given to the status of these books as commodities—desirable items to be bought or sold, accumulated or exchanged, kept safe or stolen. The Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 1674–1913, a wonderful on-line resource, provides a partial means of examining geography’s books in this last category: “hot” property.

A quick trawl of the database (below) highlights a number of occasions on which geographical books circulated as stolen property. Unsurprisingly for the period covered by the database, the majority of these books were geographical grammars or dictionaries. More interestingly, perhaps, is the evidence that the owners of these books spanned a wider social range, from a Spitalfields market tradesman (William Galloway) to a leading middle-class publisher (Thomas Cadell).

In all cases, however, the trial transcripts reveal the dire straits in which those who had resorted to stealing geographical books found themselves—ill, poverty stricken, unable to support their families. Those found guilty of stealing such works often paid a heavy price; whipping and transportation to a penal colony were not uncommon punishments.

On 4 December 1782 John Lewis, a hairdresser from Saint Domingo [now the Dominican Republic], was accused of stealing an unspecified “Geographical Dictionary”—along with four other books valued at 12 s.—from Mary Brooker. Lewis was found guilty of stealing one book only (the Bible) and punished with whipping.

On 3 June 1789 Richard Manley was accused of stealing seven books (valued at 20 s.) from the leading publisher Thomas Cadell. These books included “Blair’s Geography”—probably John Blair’s The history of the rise and progress of geography (1784). Manley would found guilty and sentenced to transportation for seven years.

On 6 July 1803 Charles Field was accused of stealing three books, including William Guthrie’s A new geographical, historical, and commercial grammar (1770), from the bookseller John Mudie and then selling them to the bookseller George Kindon. Field was found guilty and sentenced to whipping and six month’s detention.

On 3 June 1824 Mary Wood, 30, was accused of stealing four books (valued at 5 s.), including an unspecified “geographical book”, from William Galloway, a potato seller at Spitalfields Market. Wood was found guilty and sentenced to one week’s detention.

On 4 April 1836 Edward Edney (17) and William Edney (18) were accused of pickpocketing two books, including “a catechisms of Geography” valued at 6 d., from a Mr Hotine at the Greenwich fair. Both defendants were found guilty. William Edney was sentenced to three months’ detention.

On 29 January 1838 Charles Cook, 31, was accused of stealing from Sarah Combley a box containing (among much else) 53 books, valued at £1 17 s. The books included “Goldsmith’s Geography”—probably A grammar of general geography (1819). Cook was sentenced to one year’s detention.

Innes M. Keighren


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