The Female Errand Boy

On October 12th, in 1886, charges were brought against 21-year-old Lois Schwich – whom the press dubbed “the female errand boy.”

The next day she appeared at Marylebone Police Court charged with having stolen expensive cloth and clothing from several of her former employers.

The fact that those employers believed she was, in fact, a fifteen year old boy, grabbed the attention of the media and, over the next few weeks, newspapers all over the country provided their readers with regular updates on what they evidently saw as a most extraordinary and sensational case.

Illustrations showing the various people involved in the case.
The Female Errand Boy. From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday October 30th 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


In its issue on Friday 15th of October 1886, The Carlisle Patriot broke the story to its readers under the above headline.

The accompanying article read:-

“At the Marlborough Street Police Court, London, on Wednesday, a young woman 21 years of age, who was dressed as a boy, and who gave the name of Lois Schwich, was charged with stealing some handkerchiefs, boots, and gloves, the property of a glover named Jones, in Burlington Arcade.

It was stated that the prisoner had been for four months in Jones’s service as a porter, her employer having engaged her in the belief that she was a boy.

The articles were ultimately traced to the prisoner, whose mother said she had four children, and that the prisoner had been supporting them all.

The prisoner had tried to get employment as a girl, but had failed, and in her desperation to support her mother and brothers and sisters had assumed the garb of a boy while they were in a state of semi-starvation, and succeeded in obtaining employment.”


Her case, and the fact that she had, so it appeared, stolen in order to feed and keep her aged mother and her starving siblings, evidently touched a nerve, at least with her solicitor, and, on Friday 15th October 1886, the St James’s Gazette carried the following appeal, albeit it warned its readers to be wary of accepting Miss Schwich’s account of why she did it:-

“Mr. Abrahams, solicitor for Miss Lois Schwich, the female errand-boy, who is accused of theft from her employer, makes an appeal on behalf of his client’s family.

He says that he has made inquiries and has ascertained that the Schwiches were solely dependent on Lois’s exertions, and were on the verge of starvation when she obtained work as a boy.

All this is, unfortunately, only too probable. There are at all times, and more particularly in such hard times as these, many families in every great city [who are] in a state of extreme poverty. It is of course our duty to help as many of them as we can.

But kind-hearted people should wait and see that Mr. Abrahams has really got at the facts of the Schwich case before they act upon his opinion that it is of an exceptionally “distressing and deserving” character.

The real reason why Mr. Abrahams’s client assumed the lovely garnish of an errand-boy remains to be proved in the police court, and also the nature of the “exertions” she made for her family.

When that has been satisfactorily accomplished, with Mr. Abrahams’s professional assistance, it will be time enough to prefer this particular family to their more prosaic neighbours.”


It would appear that the St James’s Gazette may have been right when it warned its readers to be wary of Miss Schwich’s euses for her deception and thefts as, in its edition on Saturday 16th of October 1886, having done a little digging into her background, it published the following article:-

“Our warning to soft-hearted folk not to lend too ready an ear to the unsupported statements of Miss Lois Schwich’s professional defender has been endorsed by the vicar of that interesting young person’s parish.

The Reverend Mr. Alford knows a good deal about the Schwiches, including the true orthography of their perplexing family name.

The Schwiches have been “considerably assisted” during the last six months, and the Vicar and his friends have come to the conclusion that “the case cannot be made self-supporting, but must be referred to the poor law.””


The article continued:-

“As to Miss Schwich’s romantic disguise: that, says Mr. Alford, is not due to “any sudden freak of distress;” for that young creature has passed herself off as her mother’s nephew “for four years or more.”

Nor is it quite easy to believe that Miss Schwich has been playing the part of a boy because she could not get work as a girl; for the Vicar says that employment has been twice found recently for her sister Mary.

Mr. Alford’s tale is not at all so sentimental as the original story, about which some mawkish twaddle has already been poured out by the gushing tribe.

But it seems a good deal more likely to be true; and Mr. Alford will, no doubt, provide persons who are yearning to subscribe to this romantic and distressing case with plenty of deserving objects of quite uninteresting charity.


Lois next appeared in court on Wednesday October 19th 1886 and, on the following Sunday, Reynolds’s Newspaper provided a full account of the hearing which, evidently, had caught the imaginations of the general public, as the court was packed with eager spectators.

The article read:-

At Marlborough-street Police-court, on Wednesday, Lois Schwich, a young woman, aged 21, was charged on remand with stealing since June last from Nos. 12 and 13 Burlington-arcade, a silk handkerchief, three pairs of gloves. a pair of ladies boots, and other articles, of the value of 30s., the property of Frederick Noble Jones, glover, of that address.

The prisoner appeared in the same garb as when she was arrested – namely that of a boy.

The facts of the case are of a peculiar nature, and considerable interest was manifested in the proceedings, the court being crowded.


The prisoner four months ago obtained employment at the shop of Mr. Jones as a porter.

Being at the time dressed as a youth, her sex was never suspected, but soon after she entered upon her duties the prosecutor began to miss articles from his shop.


Owing to an anonymous letter which he received, suspicion fell upon another person in his employ, but when the writing was carefully examined it was found to be so like the prisoner’s that the police were communicated with, and the accused was taken into custody.

This led to the discovery that Schwich was a girl.


When the rooms occupied by the prisoner’s mother in Osborne-buildings, Marylebone, were searched, a number of pawn tickets relating to other property than that mentioned in the charge were found.

The mother, who had a young family, and appeared to be in it state of great poverty, informed the police that her daughter was a very good girl, bringing all the money she earned home.

She added that she had tried to get employment as a girl, but had failed, and, in desperation, as they were starving, assumed the garb of a boy, and succeeded in obtaining a situation.


On the remand, Mr. Arthur Newton, solicitor, prosecuted; and Mr. Bernard Abrahams, solicitor, conducted the defence.

Mr. Abrahams said that before the case was gone into he wished it to be known that, owing to a letter which he had written to a daily newspaper, he had received £10 on behalf of the prisoner’s family.


Mr. Newton said although it was undoubtedly true that the family of the accused was in a state of destitution, yet it must be remembered that she had tried to fasten the guilt of her crime upon another person, and, in addition, he now proposed to prefer a second charge of robbing Messrs. Goodman and Davis, of Oxford-street, to the extent of about £50.


Several pawnbrokers were then called, and produced considerable quantities of silken hose and other articles, which were identified by Mr. Jones, who stated that they belonged to him, and were worth about £15.

They had in every instance been pledged by a woman, but none of the pawnbrokers could identify her as being present in court.

Detective Inspector Conquest, having deposed to finding a pawn-ticket relating one of the pairs of silken hose (produced) at the prisoner’s lodgings, Mr. Abraham’s reserved his defence, and his client was committed for trial.


Mr. Newton then called Edwin Lionel Davis, carrying on business as a tailor in Oxford-street, under the style of “Goodman and Davis,” who deposed that in January last the prisoner, whom he believed then was a boy, called upon him and asked him for a situation.

She told him that her mother was employed at a furrier’s, and that it was such a precarious living that she wanted to get constant employment to assist her.  She said her age was fifteen. and that she had never been “out” before.

The accused was thereupon engaged to act as an errand boy; and soon after she had entered upon her duties articles of clothing were missed. In consequence of this, witness had discharged a lad whom he had in his employ upon whom suspicion fell.

Subsequently, the prisoner was found to be wearing a pair of trousers made out of the cloth belonging to Mr. Goodman who took the accused to the Tottenham-court-road Police-station, but, after investigation, declined to prosecute.

He, however, dismissed the accused and, since then, he had not lost anything. While the prisoner was in his employ, from January to June, he missed property to the value of between £60 and £80.

When she was taxed with the offence she stoutly denied the claim, saying that she had bought the trousers at Manchester.


Several pawnbrokers’ assistants produced a number of pieces of cloth which had been pawned by a woman at various dates, and which were identified by Mr Goodman as his property.

Inspector Conquest deposed to finding among the pawn-tickets in the prisoner’s room some that related to the goods that had been produced, and asked for a further remand, on the grounds that other charges would be preferred against the accused.

Mr. Mansfield committed the prisoner for trial on both charges, formally remanding her for a week.”


The St James’s Gazette had most certainly got the bit between its teeth when it came to exposing what it saw as a tissue of lies being peddled by the Swhiches and their solicitor; and, on Thursday 28th October 1886, it reported that she had appeared in court again – this time before the magistrate, Mr. Mansfield – the previous day and, according to the prosecution, she was not the wronged provider for her family that she had previously made herself out to be, albeit she had won over at least one supporter who was willing to post bail on her behalf.

The newspaper report read:-


“At Marlborough-street Police Court yesterday, Lois Schwich, a young woman dressed in male attire, was charged on remand with stealing various articles under circumstances already reported.

On the prisoner being placed in the dock, Mr. Arthur Newton, who conducted the prosecution, said that, since the last hearing, application had been made to several persons who had communicated with the police stating that they had charges to prefer against the prisoner, but they had declined to come forward.

Mr. Mansfield said that from the fact of some of the things having been pawned by a man, and others by a woman, the prisoner was evidently one of a gang of professional thieves.

Mr. Newton observed that it had been a matter of serious consideration whether action ought not to be taken against the prisoner’s mother, and that matter was still in abeyance.

Mr. Bernard Abrahams, for the defence, said that the conclusion his friend had come to with respect to the prisoner was quite erroneous. Far from her being one of a gang of thieves, she was the victim of such persons, by whom she had been led away.

He submitted that the case was one in which bail might be accepted. If the magistrate was of that opinion, Major-General Brine, of the Royal Artillery and the Athenaeum Club, was willing to become bail to the extent of £1,000.

Mr. Mansfield, observing that he could not allow the prisoner to be liberated, committed her for trial.”


Evidently the hard-luck tale that Schwich and her supporters had propagated throughout her various court appearances  failed to convince; and, at her at her final appearance –  which was on the 12th November 1886 –  having been found guilty as charged she was sentenced to 8 months imprisonment.