Pilfering at the Great Exhibition of 1851

In 1851 the Great Exhibition opened at Crystal palace in London. It was the event of its age, a glittering and marvelous demonstration of the Empire’s wealth and reach which drew in visitors from all over Britain, Europe and the wider world. Of course with all those people the exhibition also attracted some less savoury visitors and police detectives were deployed to keep order and watch for thieves.

One of the many visitors was Charles Forn, a Frenchman who was charged at the Marlborough Street Police Court in June of stealing ‘numerous small articles…portions of wood, cotton. Wheat, coal and stone’ from exhibition displays. He had drawn attention to himself and the police were watching him. An officer saw him in the south gallery moving between the exhibits of wheat. He lifted up glass shades and took handfuls of wheat specimens placing them in his pocket.

He then moved on to ‘France’ and helped himself to some handkerchiefs, before entering the American section and taking some ‘Indian corn’ and some samples of cotton and wool. He was challenged by the officer and told them he was a jeweller at the exhibition, and this seemed to be borne out by the red ribbon he had sticking out of his pocket (‘a distinctive mark of the jewellers at the exhibition’). But he then he was seen trying to get rid of the ribbon and the policeman arrested and searched him.

He had ‘half a pint’ of grain on him and two ounces of cotton, and about half that of wool. None of this amounted to anything of value so the police were curious as to his intentions. Forn claimed to be a student and said he took the items as samples for his studies. The magistrate agreed the items were hardly worth the trouble and accepted the man’s motive was unlikely to have been profit. In fact he felt there was no intent to commit felony (or, as he put it, Forn did not take the various articles ‘animo furandi’) and so he could deal with him summarily without the need for jury trial.

I’m not sure this benefitted the French scholar as he sent him to prison for six weeks!

[From Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, June 29, 1851]

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