Rape and Victorian Press Reportage

The nineteenth-century Old Bailey Proceedings (the records of trials prosecuted at the Central Criminal Court) offer us a picture of crime and punishment from the period that is often rich in the detail of everyday life. The online resource has nearly 200,000 trial records from the late 1600s to the early 20th century, but it is a partial record for all that. Some trials that ended in acquittals were excluded as were some of those where the nature of the offence was deemed unfit for public consumption. Most crimes of a sexual nature (rapes, particularly of children) carry very little detail at all.

However, we can sometimes get a slightly more informed view of these sorts of cases by combining the Proceedings with the newspaper reports of cases at Old Bailey and the police courts.

In September 1856 Professor Francoyne Michel was brought up at Bow Street Police Court for the second time to be examined on a charge of rape. His alleged victim was a young girl of 14, Ellen Lyons. The case was referred up to the Old Bailey and Michel (there named as Francis Michel)  was acquitted. The record of the trial is brief; the charge is posted and the barristers appearing named, along with the verdict. We get no detail at all, not even Ellen’s age.

The second Bow Street hearing is a little more useful, however. There we are told that Ellen gave her evidence in court for the second time, where she was cross-examined by Michel’s solicitor, a Mr. Lewis of Ely Place. He pressed her about a part of her evidence concerning a  young man named Tim Collins, a printer who worked in Fleet Street. Collins was her cousin, he added, and well known to her. Lewis stated that Collins had walked her home late a night about ten days before the alleged rape by his client and seems to have been suggesting that it was Collins that violated her, not Michel, or that she was already sexually active and therefore a subsequent medical examination of her was inconclusive.

Ellen reportedly wavered under the examination but said she had not seen Collins since then. The girl’s mother appeared to state that they had no such relation named Tim Collins. The paper felt it necessary to add that Ellen’s mother was ‘an Irishwoman’, whether for the benefit of adding detail or because this made her testimony the less believable we can only speculate, but the working-class Irish in mid-Victorian London were not held in high esteem by the middle-class (Protestant) readership of the capital’s journals.

We also get a sense of Mr. Lewis’ cross-examination in some of the ‘evidence’ it elicited from Ellen. Lweis said the story was invented: her screams ‘were not heard in the street’ when they clearly should have been. She admitted to the court that she had not scratched her attacker’s face when this would have easy to do; suggesting she hadn’t attempted to fight him off.

More damming still was her admittance that she hadn’t told her mistress (she was a domestic servant) until the next day, or her mother for three days. and then, Lewis added, there was the suspicious story concerning Tim Collins and Ellen relationship with him.

All of this must have been very traumatic for Ellen, not least having to face her alleged attacker in court. Today this would be very limited and while she would certainly appear at Crown Court (not at the pre-trial hearing) the cross examination would be conducted under clear rules of engagement.

One further historical point is worth making here. Ellen was described as a ‘young girl’ but she was also a servant and deemed a woman in the eyes of the law. In 1856 the age of consent was 12; it was raised to 13 in 1875 (but it was only a misdemeanor, not a felony, to have sex with a 13 year-old). It was only after the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 that the age of consent was set at 16, its current age, and that only after a fierce campaign was conducted both for and against the legislation had been fought. It took a press publicity stunt by William Stead’s Pall Mall Gazette involving the purchase of a 13-year old girl for £5 to force Parliament to pass the bill and tackle the problem of child prostitution and predatory male paedophiles in Victorian society.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, September 10, 1856]

One thought on “Rape and Victorian Press Reportage

  1. A very thought-provoking and informative piece today. Some might argue that the whole area of predatory crimes such as rape or indecent assault has still a long way to go before it is fully understood and properly dealt with by the justice system.


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