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The Sad Case of Mary Violet Cowan and the Theft of a Shakespeare Quarto

Robert Howe tells the tragic story of Violet Cowan, thief of a rare edition of Pericles.

Robert Howe
Interior Shakespeare Memorial Library, circa 1925
Interior Shakespeare Memorial Library, circa 1925

Mary Violet Cowan was born in County Down, Northern Ireland in 1905. She was not an unintelligent woman as she matriculated at the age of 15 and at some time had been a private teacher of music English and Mathematics near Reading and also in France.

During the war, she appeared at Horsham Petty Sessions accused of the theft of two jugs and trying to pass them off to a dealer for which she was bound over for twelve months with £1 3s 6d costs. Supt. Heritage said in court that the “defendant was a well educated single woman of good family who had given way to drink.”[1]

The defendant said she had “work waiting for her in Birmingham” and the Chairman of the Bench urged her to “keep off the drink and take advantage of the fact that she was going to a district where she was not known.” At some point, she also worked for the NAFFI in Brussels.

She next comes to light with an appearance before Stratford-on-Avon Magistrates on two counts of theft in August 1948. In itself, this may not have been widely reported but it is the subject of the first charge that made this national news.[2]

On the first charge, she was remanded for stealing items to the value of up to £4,400 from the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.

On the second charge, she was further remanded for stealing £70 11s 8d from her former employers Tibor Ltd. of Clifford Forge Mill where she had worked as a bookkeeper.

Miss Cowan lived in a caravan at Pitt Farm Wellesbourne and in a police statement she was alleged to have said: “I wanted to get money; [the] drink is the cause of it”. She had access to the Shakespeare Library at the Memorial Theatre where she worked as a cleaner and had access to the key to the closed collections. She would be tried at the County Quarter Sessions the following October.[3]

The press cuttings list the items taken.

The Merchant of Venice                  £2400

Pericles           1609 edition          £2000

In Praise of Owls                                £250

A Shakespearean cameo ring to the value of £250 taken from the Shakespeare Museum. 

At Warwick in answer to the charges she pleaded “guilty”. Mr A. E. James prosecuting said there were some 10,000 volumes, some of great value in the Shakespeare Memorial Library. Some were not available to the general public and were kept locked away. The keys were in the assistant librarian’s room, but Cowan, whose position was one of trust, would have access to them.” 

The position of trust also applies to the second charge but the press articles do not say that.[4]

She had sent the volume of Pericles to Sotheby's by registered post asking for a down-payment and offered two others to a private collector who informed the police. An antique dealer “safely put the ring on one side” when offered.  

In court, Mr James said, “the total amount involved in the false pretences connected with her former employers amounted to £147”. Mr M. Davis defending said “she was an extremely weak and easily tempted woman” and “had no idea of the value of the things she was stealing”. From the dock, Miss Cowan said: “I know I have been an exceedingly foolish woman”.

In passing sentence, Lord Ilkeston told her she had stopped at nothing to get what she wanted and was sent to prison for 15 months.

In October 1952 at an inquest into the death of Mary Violet Cowan aged 47 of The Huts, Ettington Park Estate (which was formerly Camp 31 for prisoners of war and used for persons on the district housing list) Samuel George Yendley, a farmworker who had lived in the same hut said that she had told him she intended to take her own life. He had quarrelled with Cowan and had moved into a neighbour’s hut. Cowan produced a packet marked “poison” and told the neighbour “I’m going to take this; it’s cyanide”. When asked by the coroner (Mr F. S. Lodder), Yendley said similar things have happened before.[4]

Cowan had taken the poison in a glass of port and was found dead in bed. The coroner returned a verdict of “suicide while the balance of her mind was disturbed”.       


[1]       West Sussex Gazette and South of England Advertiser 17th September 1942 p. 8
[2]       Warwick Advertiser 20th August 1948 p. 1; Liverpool Echo 25th August 1948 p.4
[3]       Coventry Evening Telegraph 13th October 1948 p. 2;  Warwick Advertiser 15th October 1948 p. 6
[4]       Birmingham Gazette 31st December 1952 p. 5          

Acknowledgements to the British Newspaper Archive. 

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