Mercer’s Apprentice, 1698
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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?