A friend once published a short story Gatty, son of a Goalkeeper. Every Saturday afternoon while his mother was keeping goal Gatty went out, first on shoplifting expeditions during which he accumulated dozens of televisions and other objects which he piled up in his room. He then became bored with the ease with which he could acquire stolen goods and took to armed robbery. By the end he had become a killer.

Morton landscape

James Morton

In my early days shop thefts seemed to be carried out on a small scale, mostly by women. Cheese here, chocolate there, a piece of meat perhaps. Even then the police in London did not take too much interest. At a time when officers prosecuted their own low-level cases, shopkeepers had to employ solicitors to appear for them in court.

There have, of course, always been gangs of shoplifters. I had a client who was late for an appointment. When he arrived he said he was sorry but he had been delayed cleaning out the bedding department of an M&S. And for years the Forty Thieves, a collection of women shoplifters, would descend like locusts on stores and strip them. But they were exceptions and did not, it seems, use the bully boy violence the gangs of today employ.

Gatty is reflected in this current crop of shoplifters – ‘thieves’ in a less woke version 25 years ago – who now loot large and small shops with apparent impunity. The Co-op recently reported that £33m of goods had been stolen and that officers attended only one in five reports of crime.

In London, the police may not have been interested in thefts from shops but they were interested in domestic burglaries. So were the courts. It was extremely difficult even to obtain bail in such cases. Prison sentences were almost inevitable. Now that also seems to have gone by the board. It is easier for the police to threaten householders who sunbathe naked in their own gardens than to tackle thieves.

Not all thieves will become Gattys, but there is sufficient evidence to show that many of them will graduate. And it will be hard to rewind the clock.


James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor