A brave young woman resists a sexual assault on Hackney Downs



Earlier this month we lost Jill Saward, one of the vociferous and determined campaigners for the rights of victims of sexual assault. Jill was the 21 year-old daughter of a vicar when she was raped by intruders in their Ealing vicarage home in 1986. Jill’s courage and persistence was instrumental in bringing about important cages to the way rape is prosecuted in this country.

Rape is still underreported and far too many women (and some men) suffer in silence but things have improved since the 1980s. In the 19th century rape and sexual assault were just as hard to prove but in addition women and girls were hamstrung by the prevailing patriarchal philosophy that saw women as inferior and subject to the care and ‘protection’ of men.

When the courts did act on rape it was often in reaction to the sexual assault of young girls and women of the middle-class; poor working-class girls were not often protected by the law even after the death penalty was removed from rape after 1841.

So when a foreigner – a lascar sailor named ‘John Williams’ – was set in the dock at Worship Street for committing a ‘daring outrage’, I was not surprised to learn that his victim was only 14.

Catherine Mather (a ‘remarkably fine and sedate-looking little girl’) was walking with her father to visit her grandmother, who lived near Hackney Downs. As they passed the Downs   her father (a dissenting minister who kept a house at Welbeck Street, Cavendish Square) stopped for a moment while she carried on.

I think what happened next would be every parent’s nightmare.

As she turned a corner and went up a lane she was now out of sight of her father. There she saw a young man who had the appearance of a lascar, south east Asian sailors who had made their homes in several English cities, London and Liverpool in particular.

Williams was eating from a  biscuit and as Catherine approached he held out his hand and offered her some of his meal. ‘Will you have a bit?’ he asked. But before she could refuse he grabbed at her, threw her to the ground and thrust his hand up her skirts.

This was the evidence Catherine gave in court while her father stood watching her. It must have taken great maturity for the young girl to compose herself, and this was not lost on the court reporter.

Williams then attempted ‘further indecencies’ which Catherine managed to resist by ‘seizing his long black hair with one hand, and his hairy lip with the other’. He bit her but she held on long enough for her father to catch up and help. She rushed off to find a policemen while the Reverend tussled with her attacker.

In court Rev. Mather (as a member of a dissenting church) refused to swear on the Bible and so was unable to give his version; the sailor tried to pretend he spoke no English and so couldn’t understand what he was charged with. Catherine was very clear that he had addressed her in English by the Downs and the court believed her.

Williams was indicted for assault with intent to have carnal knowledge of Catherine and appeared at the Old Bailey on 4 February 1850. In common with reporting of cases of a sexual nature the Proceedings merely relates the charge, the verdict (guilty) and the sentence. Williams was sent to prison for 6 months.


[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 23, 1850]

One thought on “A brave young woman resists a sexual assault on Hackney Downs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s