A case of mistaken ‘respectability’

Green Park and St. James's Park c. 1833


In the early nineteenth century character was often assumed through appearance and context. So a woman that was on the streets at at night alone was often assumed to be a prostitute; a working-class man walking in the dark would arouse suspicions that he was a thief; and a group of individuals associating together for no obvious legitimate reason, would be consider to be up to no good.

In 1830 the New Police were newly established and their role was very much to keep order as they patrolled the streets. Station Houses had not yet been built and Peel’s officers used the old watch houses that had existed since the late 1700s. The early Met was soon open to criticism that it was fun of men (often from the old watch) that were unfit to serve and too ready to fraternise with local women or accept a drink from publicans keen to get them ‘on side’.

They also faced questions that they were not worth the money ratepayers were now having to fork out for them and so, in many ways, they needed to justify their existence and quell this mounting tide of criticism.

In November 1830 an unnamed lady was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street. There was no clear charge levelled but it was certainly suspected that she had been up  to something.

The circumstances were, as the report describes, that she had come in a coach to meet some friends after their visit to a theatre. The coach had set them down on St James Street, so she could walk through the park to her home in Vauxhall. As she walked however, she was approached by the ‘driver of a cabriolet, and another low individual’ who called out insults to her.

Afraid and alone she called for a policeman but just at the same time a group of gentlemen came along, followed by a small group of ‘loose women’  (contemporary code for prostitutes). Prostitutes frequently used the London parks as places to pick up clients and the old watch and the ‘New Police’ were well aware of this.

The police arrived and, responding to the complaints of the gentlemen, moved to arrest the women. They nearly all ran off however, but one woman was captured and taken to the watch house. This was the lady who had called the police in the first place but her protestations of innocence fell on deaf ears and the policeman charged her as disorderly.

The circumstances were against her; she was a single woman walking in the park late at night, and other disorderly women were discovered with her.

When she came before Mr Conant, the magistrate at Marlborough Street, the copper confirmed she was amongst the crowd that had scattered when he approached them. The justice was about to hand down a summary punishment (a  fine or a short prison term) when he paused.

She told him (again) that she was innocent and respectable and gave him the names of the friends she had been meeting and her address, so her facts could be checked. He agreed to suspend judgment until this had been done. He then sent a messenger to see if her story could be confirmed.

When he returned the messenger had good news: ‘the prisoner’s friends were of the first respectability, her father having formal been governor of one of the islands, and at present held a high military station in this country, and that they were greatly alarmed at her absence’.

The policeman declared himself now satisfied that she was innocent and the lady was called back into court where Mr Conant told her she was free to go without ‘the slightest stain on her character’. She might have thought twice about walking across St James’ Park alone in future though. The policeman was perhaps been too eager to catch someone, and with a more open mind or more careful questioning he might have avoided causing the unnamed young woman such an unpleasant experience. One imagines his sergeant conveyed this to him, in less polite term.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, November 24, 1830]

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