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An Angelic Book Thief
The slum missionary John ‘Angel’ Gibbons knew a thing or two about the Ten Commandments. Most of all, he knew how to break them
The slum missionary John “Angel” Gibbons knew a thing or two about the Ten Commandments.
Most of all, he knew how to break them.
At the Pin Mill Brow Mission in Ardwick, his sermons played heavily on the fire and brimstone that might await the souls of his congregation.
But Gibbons had a secret he kept well hidden from them. Gibbons was a thief.
One afternoon in 1895, the manager of the John Heywood bookshop on Deansgate caught the 30-year-old evangelist slipping a book beneath his Inverness cape.
Unafraid of accusing a man of the cloth, he asked Gibbons if he intended to pay for it.
The manager allowed the blushing missionary to leave after taking hold of the book.
But he decided to set a trap ahead of his next visit.
So, when Gibbons returned as regular as clockwork the following week, an undercover police officer was waiting.
Sergeant James Howarth, peeping from behind a bookcase, saw him squirrel two books and two pencils into his pocket.
“From one counter to another he went,” a newspaper reporter later wrote.
“He took two more books, concealed them — then walked out of the shop.“
Howarth followed him into the street and saw him pull out one of the stolen books and examine it before hiding it again under his cape.
The sergeant watched Gibbons go into another bookshop in St Ann’s Square owned by James Cornish, where he stole several more books.
He then arrested him in St Ann’s Passage.
When detectives later went to Gibbons’s terraced house in Viaduct Street, they made an astonishing discovery.
Inside, stacked from floor to ceiling, were 360 books.
Nearly all of them were stolen.
Gibbons was charged with stealing 128 books from John Heywood’s shop alone.
The rest came from five other shops in the city including the Smiths’ stall at London Road Station.
There was a sensation in court when some of the titles of the books, which included novels as well as religious texts, were read out.
Among them was a book called The Devil, along with a feminist novel, The Heavenly Twins, which discussed a topic deemed taboo at the time — how promiscuity by Victorian men was spreading syphilis.
It turned out that the missionary had form stretching back to 1888 when he was caught stealing a rug, an umbrella and a walking stick from a medical student’s luggage on platform 4 of Exchange Station.
There was a further surprise when Gibbons’s solicitor in the book case said he was at a loss to explain his client’s “systematic pilfering”.
Gibbons, he said, claimed he was a “victim” of kleptomania — being unable to resist the urge to steal things you don’t need.
Kleptomania seemed to be sweeping through the streets of Manchester in the 1890s, with a number of notorious thieves claiming to have been struck down by it to try to avoid lengthy prison sentences.
It did no good. Gibbons was jailed for six months with hard labour.
He never again preached the Ten Commandments in Ardwick.
Manchester’s lost bookshops
It’s easy to think of the Victorians as not being very well read.
But flicking through the Manchester’s old trade directors shows there were a staggering 147 shops listed booksellers and stationers in the city centre and wider districts in 1895. Today there are only a handful.
John Heywood, whose bookshop stood in Excelsior Buildings at 141-3 Deansgate, was a well known publisher and printer, as well as a bookseller.
Shops favoured by the thief John ‘Angel’ Gibbons included James Cornish’s shop at 16 St Ann’s Square and the Abel Heywood and Sons’ shop, which stood near the Castle Hotel at 56-58 Oldham Street.
If you are wondering what an Inverness cape looks like, it is the same coat that was worn by the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.
The Inverness cape was good for keeping the Manchester rain from soaking people’s clothes— and also, apparently, for stealing books.
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