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Abraham Hugon, Mercer’s Apprentice, 1698

On 29 April, 1698, Abraham Hugon, a mercer’s apprentice, made a deposition (witness statement) in front of a magistrate about a shoplifter whom he had caught red-handed. This voiceover is based closely on that statement, which is given below.


Bailhou’s Shop, Charing Cross

My name is Abraham Hugon. I am apprentice to Master Bailhou the mercer, in the year of our Lord 1698.

Shop Interior

Shop Front
Shop Front

Many of my Huguenot countrymen are in the cloth and weaving trade. Others are silversmiths and jewellers, merchants and clockmakers, glass blowers, gunsmiths and engravers. Many are weavers, of course, living out at Spitalfields.

But I am content with learning the mercer's trade of buying and selling fine cloths. I love the textures and the colours: delicate Indian muslins, brightly coloured silks, soft velvets, smooth satins. It is a satisfying thing to earn an honest living by one's own skill and knowledge.

People at Charing Cross
People at Charing Cross

This afternoon a young woman came into the shop. She was pretty. That was the first thing I noticed. I suppose that was why I was watching her so closely.

Though my master is always warning us to keep a close watch on the customers, especially when two or three ladies come into the shop together.

Shop Interior
Shop Interior

Most shoplifts are women, you know, and they dress very well, so you’d never know they were anything other than honest customers. And they are very neat-handed and quick. I remember once when my master, my mistress, Martin - the other apprentice - and I were all in the shop, all of us keeping our eyes open, and yet two of these shoplifting women so deceived us that they were able to make off with twenty pounds’ worth of goods in silks and velvets.

That is the only time I have heard my master swear. He is a God-fearing man, Master Bailhou.

But this young woman was different; I don’t believe she was used to shoplifting. She asked to see this piece, and that piece, and didn’t seem to know what she wanted, and then when Martin was showing her friend some brocade and she thought my eyes were off her, she snatched a big piece of muslin off the counter and hid it under her petticoats.

She thought I was adding up figures in my master’s account book, and so I was, but I can do that and watch the shop, too. So when she caught her friend by the arm, pulling her out of the shop, I was ready: I ran out after them and stood in their way. “Madam,” I said, “pardon me, but I think you have something that belongs to my master.” She tried to push past me, but a crowd was gathering.

Charing Cross
Charing Cross

Then she burst into tears and called me a dirty Frenchman. I don’t know how she knew; I’ve lived here nearly all my life. I think she hoped the crowd would turn against me. In some parts of London, that might have happened. The common people don’t like us Huguenots. They call us ‘wooden shoes’ and claim that we take the bread out of their mouths.

But many of the people who were coming to watch were people I knew; my fellow prentices from the shops along the Strand. They were not going to let a shoplift bolt.

 width=
Crowd

I asked her to take the muslin from under her petticoats, and when she would not, I asked Mistress White, the milliner from the shop next to my master’s, if she would search her for me. She found the muslin straightaway. Her friend cried out at that point, begging us to let her go, saying that it was all Betty’s fault, and she’d had nothing to do with it, and even that she hardly knew her. The other one spoke up for her and said that all of that was true.

Although I was angry with her for trying to make a fool of me and steal from my master, I liked her for doing that. But Mistress White told them both to be quiet. She said that if nothing could be proved against the second woman she would go free, but meanwhile she must stay and give evidence.

Well, we went back to the shop, and someone sent for the constable, and he came and took us to the justice’s house. I was a little afraid, then. I was only five when we left France, but I still remember the months when we moved from place to place, hunted fugitives, terrified of the dragoons.

Watchman
Watchman

And then, I am a stranger born, and unlike Master Bailhou, I am not a naturalised subject of the King. But the justice spoke quite kindly when he told me to speak up.

He set the other woman free at once.

But the shoplift, Elizabeth Rowse her name is, he remanded her to prison. I have to appear in court soon, as a witness. My master has gone bail for my appearance.

He tells me he is certain they won’t hang her. He says that they’ll send her to Virginia or Jamaica, and she’ll marry a planter there and become a rich woman.

But I think about her quite often. Sometimes I even find myself wishing I had let her escape. The last time I saw her, when the constable was taking her away to the prison, she looked as pale as death, and so despairing. But I owe my master a duty to protect his goods. And what is she, after all, but a thief with a pretty face?

Newgate
Newgate

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