Eloping lovers are caught up in the justice system

In the past few years we have rightly been exercised by child abuse and while most of the dreadful stories in circulation have concerned individuals such as Jimmy Saville or the grooming gangs of Rotherham, we have also had examples of older men running away with much younger girls (like the case of Jeremy Forrest in 2015). The question I’m always interested in is whether any of this is new or a product of our modern society? The answer is often, no.

In December 1883 John Carter was presented at the Marylebone Police Court, charged with abducting a girl of 14 from the care and protection of her father.

However, the case here was far from clear cut. Carter was just 19 years old himself and he and the girl, Sarah Ann Terrell, had been ‘walking out’ together for eight months. In other words, they were sweethearts.

Sarah Ann (or Mary Ann as her father gave her name in court), had not been abducted at all she said. Instead she had gone willingly with John Carter, leaving her father’s house in Munster Square at 5 in the morning while he slept. The first William Tyrrell knew of it was when he woke and found her gone. He went to police immediately.

Sarah had tried to go to John straight away but couldn’t find him it seems. She walked the streets all night and was afraid to return home, knowing her father would be angry with her. Eventually she found John at 6 the following evening, ‘quite by accident’. He was on his way to his sisters so the pair went to stay there.

The next day they took a room where they stayed together until the Wednesday  morning. She told the court that John had promised to marry her and that she went to him of her own free will. Her flight was not arranged and John knew nothing about any of it she told the magistrate.

John Carter left her at the room they had rented and went back to see his sister on the Wednesday afternoon. When he got to her house two police officers were there, and they took him into custody. Sarah was again adamant that John had done nothing wrong. Indeed he had urged her to go home to her father but she was afraid of his anger. He offered to get her a room but it was her determination that he stayed in it, not his she said.

The case she presented in court was one that suggested John was innocent of the charge levelled against him; instead it was Sarah, as a young woman of 15 (not 14 and a half as he father alleged) who had been been the instigator of her own actions. In 1883 the legal age of consent was 14, it wasn’t raised to 16 until 1885 with the Criminal Law Amendment Act (passed in the wake of the Maiden Tribute scandal).

So it is unclear what law had been broken here. The magistrate was clearly moved by the girl’s testimony and did not seem to see the young man as a threat to her. Nevertheless while he was fairly sure there was no case to answer regarding abduction, he bound John over on his own recognisances (of £10) for a few days to consider the evidence and allow further witnesses to come forward.

This was not child abuse or abduction in the 1880s but what would we have made of it today? I think John Carter would have had questions to answer, particularly if it had been proved that the couple had been intimate with each other. Sarah Anne was under age (for 2016 if not for 1883) and I imagine he would find himself on the Register of Violent and Sex Offenders.  Clearly this represents an important step forward in the protection of young people even if, in this case, there were two young people who needed to be considered.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 30, 1883]

2 thoughts on “Eloping lovers are caught up in the justice system

  1. Why does it represent “an important step forward in the protection of young people”? It doesn’t sound like the young girl in your 1883 example needed protection, except from her angry father. If our current laws would deny her freedom of choice and put the young man on a register alongside paedophiles and rapists that sounds like a big step backwards.


  2. I think that the register (if deployed as I suspect it was intended) can and does work to protect children and young people from the predatory abuse of older men (and women). However, as you imply in this case the situation is more complicated. The question we would have to ask (and one that is impossible to answer)is whether the girl was a mature young woman of nearly 15 able to make her own decisions or was being manipulated by an older (if not much older) young man. Today probation and social workers would have given evidence as part of the decision to to place Carter on any register, then they were not; the decision was entirely in the hands of the magistrate.

    The modern system is far from perfect and you are quite right that there is a world of difference between two young people running away because a parent would not sanction their relationship and abduction or rape. But Victorian society allowed a situation where young girls under the age the 16 were trafficked to the Continent to work in brothels or forced to service paedophiles in London and other cities. Until the 1885 act was passed this was legal. We have therefore made some progress I’m sure you would agree.

    Thanks for reading and I appreciate the time taken to comment as well


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