When I declared to a colleague in work recently that I had become obsessed with shoplifting, I probably should have clarified what I meant! I haven’t suddenly taken a shine to pocketing items from local stores.  Rather, while doing some research to finish off the section on the changing shopping habits of housewives in 1960s Ireland for my forthcoming book, I kept coming across newspaper articles on the dramatic increase in shoplifting during that decade.  I became obsessed with finding out more about this sudden occurrence.

A quick search on the Bibliography of British and Irish History website led me to the brilliantly title ‘Helping Yourself: Self-Service Grocery Retailing and Shoplifting in Britain, c.1950-75’ in Cultural and Social History.  I do love a good play on words!

Dawn Nell and her co-authors pointed out that the rise in shoplifting in Britain was connected to the growth of self-service stores.  As counter-service faded away and customers were left to browse the aisles for themselves, countless — because many were never detected — gave in to temptation, while others saw this change in layout as an opportunity to build a career as a professional shoplifter.  Reading the article I was struck by the parallels with the Irish situation that I’d been finding in Irish newspaper reports.

Around the country, District Court Judges made the same connection, and apportioned some of the blame to the shopkeepers for making their displays too alluring.

Many young country girls are so dazzled in the open counter stores that they cannot resist temptation (Evening Herald, February 1963).


The Justice said that because of the way goods were displayed in the store, a very strong temptation was placed before youngsters and people of low means (Western People, October 1966).

Meanwhile, in the Dáil in November 1969, Séamus Pattison, the Labour TD for Carlow-Kilkenny, was critical of supermarkets for ‘leaving their goods very much out in the open in a tempting and provocative manner’.

If they have not adequate staff to protect their wares they should be prepared to put up with the consequences. I detest people who engage in shoplifting, but people are human and if you dangle goods in front of their eyes in a fashion where it would be very easy to take goods from the display these people should not be blamed that much.

This was the line of defence used in the trial of Mrs Catherine Orr of Newtownsteward.  The mother of four young children was accused of stealing a gent’s cardigan and a dress from Alf Gidley store in Omagh in 1969 explained,

I didn’t mean this to happen. It isn’t that I haven’t got the money. I just yielded to temptation (Ulster Herald).

Maybe the judges had a point … Or, given the frequency with which ‘giving in to temptation’ was given as an excuse in the courts, maybe it had become a clever tactic to avoid imprisonment?

As the article about Britain from Nell et al clearly shows, this wasn’t a uniquely Irish problem.  Indeed, Irish newspapers at the time carried a myriad of articles reporting similar problems around the world.

The arrival of open-counter shopping alone doesn’t explain the upturn in shoplifting, although it certainly facilitated it.  I’m interested in teasing out motivations more, to better understand why ‘respectable’ women who had sufficient money in their purses chose to conceal items rather than pay for them.

Stay tuned for more updates as I develop this project.