A Look at Dog Theft in the Nineteenth-Century Slum – Zoë Crew

In recent years, historians have started to notice the lack of animals in the studies of cities. Peter Atkins in the introduction to his 2012 book, stated that until recently animals were totally absent from contemporary urban theory [1]. So why are animals beginning to be highlighted in history, and most importantly, why do animals even matter? This short analysis of a nineteenth century newspaper article will discuss why animals, and more specifically dogs, did matter in the Victorian slums.

In 1874 the Sporting Gazette printed an article entitled ‘Dog Stealers of the Old School’ [2], which is presented as the speaker recounting a memory of two occasions when the Lord William Beresford’s dog was stolen in about 1844. Although the Lord William Beresford was acknowledged to be a keen pet owner [3], it cannot be known whether this account is factual; indeed the speaker himself refers to it as a ‘tale’. Regardless of its accuracy, the article explores an event which was relatively commonplace in the mid nineteenth century: the theft of a desirable dog by lower class criminals, and the reselling of it back to its owner.

Figure 1: Animalistic Language.

The dog thieves would have been viewed as the criminal class by the middle-class pet owner and this source highlights the cruelty and immorality that was often associated with this class of people. The individuals portrayed in this article embody the degenerate aspect of the lower class, for example Holborn spends his time in public-houses smoking. The immorality of the men is further shown by the descriptions of darkness surrounding them. The thieves linger in the shadows as the middle class pass by them; their invisibility to the middle class enables them to steal the bloodhound Marmion with relative ease.

At this time the middle class saw a connection between bad behaviour to humans, and animal cruelty [4]. Throughout the article, the dog is presented as a greater being than the thieves; he is lovingly described with alliterative language to display his worth: ‘magnificent Marmion’ and ‘beloved bloodhound’. It is clear that the author aims to humanise Marmion, as he is frequently referred to as a victim who is capable of feeling misery, and the attempted drowning of him is described as a ‘hideous murder’. The use of the word ‘murder’ shows that dogs like Marmion were highly valued. Whilst ‘noble Marmion’ is praised throughout, the thieves Bugle Eye, Somersault and their female accomplices are continually described with animalistic language (see Figure 1). They are depicted as ‘inhuman ruffians’ who treat this majestic animal with ‘brutal indifference’. When they take Marmion they are shown as ‘ready to pounce’ on him. This kind of language further alienates the lower class from the respectable middle class reader, which appears to be the aim of the article. As historian Steve Baker states, suggesting that someone has behaved like an animal situates them at ‘the very depths of moral degradation’ [5]. The humanising of Marmion was a clever technique by the author to both iconise him, whilst at once suppressing the dangerous parts of human society- the thieves [6].

Figure 2: A dog stealer in action!

The rise in thefts of dogs such as Marmion was due to the rising popularity of fancy dogs, which had a number of consequences [7]. These pedigree dogs captured the Victorian imagination, resulting in their increasing value through sentimental attachment, and in their protection by law [8]. The author states that these thefts occurred around the time that the Dog Stealing law was passed in 1845. Henry Mayhew’s chart (Figure 3) shows the increase in thefts and the lack of suitable punishments, which led to the demand for this law. The law clearly identified dogs as property and inflicted stricter punishments on thieves [9]. The changing status of dogs in society meant that these new fancy dogs were becoming much more desirable to shady characters looking to make money dishonestly. This business side of dog stealing is shown through the second theft of Marmion. Mayhew said this was because if an owner was quick to purchase his dog back, the animal would almost definitely be stolen again, as the thieves could be certain of achieving a higher ransom [10]. In 1844 this profitable trade could net the thief anywhere between £2 and £50 for each dog stolen [11].

Mayhew chart
Figure 3: Dogs Stolen and Persons Charged.

The poor are clearly generalised in this newspaper article, which is a reflection of middle-class ideas of the poor at the time. The area the thieves live in is described as a ‘fraternity’. All of its inhabitants are grouped together as morally corrupt people who are more than happy to cover up their neighbour’s misdemeanours. Middle-class explorers such as Mayhew reinforced this idea at the time [12]. It was necessary for the middle class to perpetuate these ideas, as dog stealing threatened their ideal of domesticity. They started to believe that the dog understood the idea of family and so welcomed him into their homes; these dogs ceased working and became pets. Meanwhile, the poor were still pushed to the outskirts of the middle-class imagination, where they typified them by their apparent moral deprivation and savage personalities. The theft of dogs reconnected the classes and feminised the middle class due to their lack of power over the situation; it thus threatened domestic security [13]. For Harriet Ritvo, all human and animal encounters, including the pedigree pet trade, sought to reinforce existing social hierarchies, as is evident in this article [14].

This analysis hopes to have highlighted the importance of the domestic dog as a symbol of conflict between the middle class and the inhabitants of the slum in the nineteenth century. It aims to have reinforced Harriet Ritvo’s statement that human and animal interactions reflected ‘traditional understandings and deeply held convictions’ within society [15]. The newspaper article has helped to show how the Victorian cult of pets simply added more strain to class relations, by further separating the middle class from the slum-dwelling poor [16].

Zoë Crew



[1] Atkins, Peter, ‘Introduction’, in Atkins, Peter (ed.) Animal Cities: Beastly Urban Histories (London: Ashgate, 2012), p.1.

[2] A. H. B., ‘Dog Stealers of the Old School’, Sporting Gazette, 2 May 1874, p. 389.

[3] Menzies, Mrs. Stuart, Lord William Beresford, V. C.: Some Memories of a Famous Sportsman, Soldier and Wit (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1917).

[4] Atkins, Animal Cities, p.9.

[5] Baker, Steve, Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), p.89.

[6] Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p.131.

[7] Worboys, Mick, Pemberton, Neil, and Strange, Julie-Marie, ‘The Dog Fancy and ‘Fancy Dogs’: Pedigree, Breeding and Britishness, 1859-1914’. Available online: http://www.alc.manchester.ac.uk/research/allprojects/featuredprojects/fancydogs/ Date accessed: 1/11/15.

[8] Ritvo, The Animal Estate, p.90.

[9] Anon, ‘Dog Stealing: House of Commons Debate’ (25 June 1845). Available online: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1845/jun/25/dog-stealing. Date accessed: 16/12/15; Howell, Philip, At Home and Astray: The Domestic Dog in Victorian London (Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2015).

[10] Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor: The Classical Study of the Culture of Poverty and the Criminal Classes in the 19th-century, Volume Two (London: Constable and Company, 1968), p.49.

[11] Ritvo, The Animal Estate, p.86.

[12] Mayhew, London Labour, p.49.

[13] Howell, At Home and Astray.

[14] Ritvo, The Animal Estate, p.132.

[15] Ritvo, The Animal Estate, p.3.

[16] Ritvo, The Animal Estate, p.86.

Figure 1. A. H. B., ‘Dog Stealers of the Old School’.

Figure 2. Riviere, Briton, A Dognapper in Action, oil on canvas, 1879, Private Collection. Available online: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/how-the-dog-found-a-place-in-the-family-home-from-the-victorian-age-to-ours. Date accessed: 4/12/15.

Figure 3. Mayhew, London Labour, p.50.