18th-Century Barbers at the Old Bailey.

As my project on the health and medical history of facial hair rolls ever Belforward, I’ve recently turned my attention to barbers and their role in shaping and managing facial hair through time. Amongst the many questions I’m looking at are how they were trained, what their shops were like, and how much they charged. Further posts will follow on those matters!

As I’ve said many times before on this blog, one of the joys of being an historian are the stories that you come across accidentally while you’re looking for something else. So it has proved to be with barbers, who seem to crop up in a dizzying array of sources and contexts. Recently I’ve been looking through the records of the Old Bailey, to check for unwitting testimony about shop practices or activities. There is actually a lot that can be gleaned from witness testimonies and the details they can provide. But, along the way, I’ve seen lots of evidence to suggest that barbers were often the targets for thieves.

Whilst a barbershop might not immediately spring to mind as a tempting target, lots of barbering goods were actually desirable, and easy to put out through the fence.

In some cases basic things like shop linen and cloths could be targeted. In 1732, Catherine Sanders of St Dunstan’s parish, was indicted for stealing a haul of shop linen, including ‘shaving cloths’ to the value of 7s and 6d. These were the cloths put around the customer’s neck, both to catch the soap, and sometimes for the barber to wipe his razor on. Given that the average London labourer’s wage was around 20-30 pence per day, the value of these goods was virtually a week’s wages. It’s easy to see why some were tempted into crime by the promise of a fast buck. Being caught risked a high price though. In January 1735, Mary Collings was arrested after stealing three shaving cloths from the London barber William Day. She was sentenced to transportation.

Barbers Shop.jpg

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Razors, and especially high end, silver tipped, models, were another favourite. At the beginning of the eighteenth century razors were relatively hard to come by. They did not appear in advertising much before the mid eighteenth century, and tended to be bought by barbers from specialist artisan makers, and cutlers. They could be relatively expensive items too, meaning that purloined examples could be easily sold. July 1682 saw John Scroby lift a ‘case of silver tipt razors’ from the barber shop of William Thomson…valued at the substantial sum of eight pounds! When he was caught he denied having any razors on his person. On being searched, and the items found, he claimed to have been given them…but, conveniently, he couldn’t remember who by. The following year saw eleven silver tipped razors stolen from Richard Plat’s Barbican shop, and quickly pawned by the thief. In fact, razors feature commonly amongst lists of stolen goods in Old Bailey cases.

Barber shop 2

Looking glasses – mirrors – were an expensive, luxury item. As historian Margaret Ezell has pointed out, modern mirrors, understood as a reflective coating over a glass surface, did not come into being until the end of the seventh century. Before then a ‘looking glass’ was likely to be a polished metal surface, and also not necessarily flat, giving a potentially distorted or unclear reflection.[1] Even small glass mirrors were prohibitively expensive; Pepys’ gift of a small looking glass for his wife cost the equivalent value of over one hundred pounds in modern currency. It’s not surprising to find looking glasses on early modern thieves’ wish lists therefore. David Cooke and his accomplice Jonathan Robinson, knew what they were looking for when they broke into Edward Burrows’ barber shop in 1716, making off with razors, a parcel of hair (valued at £5) and a ‘lookeing glass’ worth 30 shillings.

1280px-Barber's_shaving_bowl,_Netherlands,_1701-1750_Wellcome_L0057195

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Even the most basic items could prove tempting for opportunists. In Bridewell Hospital in June 1716, Margaret Morgan decided it would be a good idea to try and steal ‘a shaveing bason, two razors and a towel’. On catching her in possession due to her not ‘giving any good account of herself otherwise’ her victim, the barber Thomas Ward of Little Britain, had her charged. Even the most basic items of barbering equipment, such as the hone used to maintain the razor’s edge, could prove too tempting for some thieves.

Occasionally things took an almost comic turn. In April 1729, Sam Salmon took to his heels with his pockets stuffed with 43 washballs, the property of the barber William Barnard. Washballs were small, compacted balls of soap powder and other ingredients, used to create the lather to shave. Caught in the act by Barnard’s neighbours, he was pursued up the street, the washballs doubtless spilling out of his pockets as he ran. His failure to get ‘clean’ away cost him a voyage on a transportation ship.

NPG 4313; John Sheppard attributed to Sir James Thornhill

(Notorious 18th-century criminal Jack Sheppard…not sure if he ever stole from barbers, but just in case! – Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the most lucrative item of all for thieves, however, were wigs, and the parcels of hair used to make them. Edward Kent stole four wigs, two razors and five ounces of human hair, after convincing the barber and peruke maker Moses Freeman that he wished to learn the trade of wigmaker. Among the haul of Cornelius Barret in 1686 were a ten-shilling periwig and a ‘bever hat’. One Robert Milksop pinched a periwig valued at 30 shillings from the box being carried by Thomas Parks, as the two men passed each other in Cheapside. In 1692, a criminal known only as “B.J.” broke into the house of Bryant Brandon, and made off with three razors, but also ‘twenty two pounds in weight’ – valued at an eyewatering 100 pounds. The case against “B.J.” was difficult to prove, so he escaped with a branding for his trouble.

What-is-This-my-Son-Tom-1774
Image Wikipedia – creative commons

Perhaps my favourite case of all, however, concerns the theft of a range of goods including books, a hammer and a flower tub, as well as twelve razors by a Fulham schoolmaster, Ephraim Mansell. The case actually revolved around the razors, and whether Mansell had borrowed them (as he claimed), or stolen them. The name of the victim? Mr Blunt.

[1] Margaret Ezell, ‘Looking Glass Histories’, Journal of British Studies, 43:3 (2004), 323.

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2 thoughts on “18th-Century Barbers at the Old Bailey.

  1. Fascinating post, thanks! I am reminded again reading it of a way that the past was different from our own: Things –manufactured good like shaving cloths, razors, even soap — being so expensive relative to labor that even quite ridiculous things seemed worth stealing (and risking very severe penalties for). People and their lives were cheap, but not stuff.

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