A ‘Filthy Fellow’ in Southwark

In the last quarter century or so modern society has been particularly concerned with child abuse and paedophiles, largely as a result of the advent of the internet and of a raised awareness of the crime and better ways of dealing with victims. Yet the crime itself is nothing new: anyone looking carefully through the pages of 18th or 19th century newspapers or the published Proceedings of the Old Bailey will find rapes and sexual assaults on children.

However, while much of the reportage is carefully concealed beneath euphemism (as is most reporting of sexual activity) I am sometimes struck by the leniency of punishments handed down to Victorian paedophiles and the sometimes seemingly flippant ways they are described.

In 1867 Samuel Brettle (described as a 68 year old ‘respectable looking’ man) was brought before the magistrate at Southwark accused of an attack on a young girl of ten. Nancy Lobb was at her grandmother’s shop in Cornwell Road when Brettle entered one afternoon. He was a regular and Nany sold him a bottle of ginger ale and he then asked her if her grandmother was at home.

Nancy’s grandmother was upstairs resting and because the girl could see that the customer was rather the worse for drink she decided not to bother her nan and said she’d gone out. Brettle now bought some sweets which he offered to Nancy and her friend who sat with her.

At some point Nancy’s pal left and Brettle saw his opportunity. The court report says that he ‘acted indecently towards her’. Nancy cried out and her grandmother came down to see what the fuss was about. When she heard what had happened she called for a policeman and Brettle was arrested.

In court – and quite unlike anything that would happen today – Nancy was cross-examined ‘severely’ by the magistrate (Mr Chippefield). She stuck to her story that Brettle had abused her. The arresting officer confirmed that Brettle had been inbrieated and that he claimed to have done nothing wrong. Then the girl’s father arrived (they did not live together) and said he knew Brettle and couldn’t believe he would do such a thing. He wanted to stop the prosecution as Brettled had apparently  apologised to him for the assault on his daughter.

The magistrate said it was now beyond his powers to stop the prosecution and sent Brettle for trial by his peers, a trial that would presumably mean Nancy would have to face her abuser in a more formal setting.

Clearly the father didn’t think it merited a trial, or that Brettle had done much wrong. I get the feeling the JP was minded to agree but maybe nurtured some doubts. Today this would have been taken much more seriously and Nancy would have been considered to be a victim and have been treated more kindly by the court system.


[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 6, 1867]

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