Brot on Tickell, 'Shoplifting in Eighteenth-Century England'

Shelley Tickell
Esther Brot

Shelley Tickell. Shoplifting in Eighteenth-Century England. People, Markets, Goods: Economies and Societies in History Series. Rochester: Boydell & Brewer, 2018. Illustrations, tables. 236 pp. $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-78327-328-7.

Reviewed by Esther Brot (King's College London) Published on H-Albion (June, 2020) Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer College)

Printable Version:

The first question that shoplifting brings to mind is how do you do it successfully. Not what motivates the shoplifter, who is likely to become a shoplifter, and almost never how does shoplifting affect retailers. Shelley Tickell’s book Shoplifting in Eighteenth-Century England provides not only a deep understanding of the crime and its perpetrators but also the response and attitude of shopkeepers from the passing of the Shoplifting Act in 1699 to its revocation in 1820. This book advances the historiographies of eighteenth-century crime and consumption in Britain through its analysis of Old Bailey Records, Northern Circuit Assize Court Records, and print publications. This century saw financial crises, war, rising prices, an increase in consumption, and the advent of new forms of governance and financial instruments; Shoplifting in Eighteenth-Century England adds an important layer to our understanding of life in eighteenth-century England, a century marked by great change. The book examines “the impact of deprivation, the force of consumer desire, the nature of contemporary understanding of the crime and the uneasy congruence of commercial reaction and juridical response ... [and] reveals how these factors interacted to make shoplifting the most emblematic of eighteenth-century crimes” (p. 2). To do so, Tickell moves away from a more general analysis of property crime to consider shoplifting by itself, allowing her to explore shoplifting in detail. She offers new insights into the practice of shoplifting, its impact, and attitudes toward it, by moving beyond archetypes of criminals and victims to consider shoplifters and retailers at the meta-level as the aggregate of individuals and at the minute level as the individuals they were. This is a break with the historiography on crime epitomized by John Beattie’s book, Crime and the Courts in England, 1660-1800 (1986), which has a macro approach to property crime.

Within the historiography on property crime, historians have established a range of courts’ actions and the options available to victims. In particular, historians have examined the discretion of courts’ application of the law. Tickell adds an important layer to the narrative of property crimes elaborated over the past thirty years. This book explicates not only how the victims negotiated the court system but also how they established their own anti-theft protections. Tickell does this through her detailed focus on shoplifting and tracks the legal and extralegal means that retailers chose to contend with shoplifting. From this, we can knit together a more specific view of how victims of crime acted.

The layout of this book facilitates reader comprehension. Each chapter is split into logical subsections and contains a summary at the end, easing the transition into the following chapter. Chapter 1 constructs the profile of the shoplifters. Building on this profile, chapter 2 discusses the “spatial dimensions of the crime,” revealing the scale and location of the crime (p. 13). In doing so, it offers insight into what sorts of shops shoplifters targeted. In chapter 3, Tickell analyzes how shoplifting was practically done and how retailers and their staff reacted to shoplifting and the measures they took to protect their shops. Chapter 4 examines what shoplifters stole, exploring the connection between shoplifting and consumption. While chapter 5 focuses on the financial impact shoplifting had on shopkeepers, chapter 6 explores the retailers’ use of the law. Many retailers found the Shoplifting Act too harsh, preferring the Larceny Law instead. Tickell turns to a broader audience in chapter 7, analyzing a range of printed material to examine public attitudes toward shoplifting. Overall the chapters have narrative unity, but chapter 7 is less integrated due to its broader though valuable perspective.

Tickell has an extensive source base and employs visual aids to present her large data sets. She surrounds her graphs and charts with passages from the Old Bailey and Northern Circuit Assize Court Records. This combination allows the reader to penetrate the larger patterns that Tickell substantiates with her meta-analysis. The passages correlate well with the graphs, layering the specific and general together rendering the arguments comprehensible. The book’s arguments are easy to follow due to the chapters’ framework and the presentation of this evidence.

This book might have benefited from a greater explanation of the relevance of modern criminology to the eighteenth century. Tickell, in the introduction, states that modern criminology cannot be “transplanted wholesale” but modern criminology theories “offer concepts and approaches for better understanding of the phenomenon of eighteenth-century shoplifting” (p. 13). Tickell, however, does not explain fully how she applies modern methodology thoughtfully to eighteenth-century situations. What makes this theory particularly useful for analyzing shoplifting? I am not contesting the utility of modern criminology, but Tickell could have laid out in greater detail the relevance of modern criminology and her application of it. In chapter 3, for example, she provides a good explanation of what Routine Activity Theory is—that it helps examine patterns of behavior—but does not explain why this theory is suited for the eighteenth-century or if she needed to adjust it to an eighteenth-century world.

In the introduction and within each chapter, Tickell engages with relevant literature, but she could have presented more forcefully the significance and importance of her contribution. The holistic structure of Tickell’s analysis is a substantial contribution to the field in content and method. The conclusion details how unique the argument on retailers’ attitudes toward shoplifting is, but she could have more strongly underlined this originality from the start.

While Tickell’s analysis challenges the approach to property crime, it supplements work like Beverly Lemire’s on the economy of makeshifts.[1] Tickell demonstrates how shoplifting served as one method of subsistence for the poor. However, she moves away from other arguments within the history of consumption. She complicates John Styles’s argument in The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England (2007) that shoplifting was the means by which fashions spread to the lower ranks. We learn that it was not the elite stores that suffered the most but those with “modest” goods. Shoplifting did help transmit “new styles and textiles within plebeian communities,” but Tickell argues that “crime reflected, rather than propelled, the pace of acquisition of new consumables by the poor” (p. 9). Shoplifting in Eighteenth-Century England makes a substantial contribution to the historiographies on property crime and consumption in a highly readable and enjoyable format.


[1]. Beverley Lemire, “The Theft of Clothes and Popular Consumerism in Early Modern England,” Journal of Social History 24, no. 2 (1990): 255-76; and Beverley Lemire, “Peddling Fashion: Salesmen, Pawnbrokers, Taylors, Thieves, and the Second-Hand Clothes Trade in England, c. 1700-1800,” Textile History 22, no. 1 (1991): 67-82.

Citation: Esther Brot. Review of Tickell, Shelley, Shoplifting in Eighteenth-Century England. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. June, 2020. URL:

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