Understandably in today’s society we are very concerned about child abuse, especially sexual abuse. Aside from the terrorist the chief bogeyman in modern times is the paedophile; the man in the ‘dirty mac’, hanging around children’s play areas and tempting children with offers of sweets. Today the reality is that much of this activity begins online and considerable official (and unofficial) effort is being made to thwart the activities of child abusers who use the so-called ‘dark web’ to create internet communities with the aim of sexually exploiting children.
As with most crime we would be mistaken in thinking that this was a peculiarly ‘modern’ phenomenon. Whilst changes and developments in technology might have enabled abusers to find new ways to access children and share their experiences, the urge to commit such offences has a very long history. Today, a man like Matthew Simpkin, who was charged at Bow Street in 1852 for sexually assaulting a child, would be placed on the sexual offenders register and be offered some support in overcoming or coping with his ‘condition’. In 1852, as we shall see, society may have been just as disgusted by his actions, but there was little in place to prevent him offending again.
Simpkin was described in courts as a 35 year-old clerk to an attorney. He was a member of the middle classes, respectable and was – according to his uncle who appeared to vouch for him – a God fearing man.
A passerby had witnessed Simpkin approach a young girl in the public square near the fountains, and he reported the clerk to a nearby constable. He testified that ‘after taking liberties with her’, he saw Simpkin take ‘her to a stall and treated her to some milk and sweet-meats’. The policeman and the other witness followed the man and the girl into the park where they saw him repeat ‘the same disgraceful conduct’.
Note we are told what this ‘conduct’ was; the nineteenth-century press did not describe sexual assaults of any nature in detail for fear of offending their readers. In a way this is somehow worse because we are left to imagine what the poor girl was subjected to.
Finally the girl got away and ran home, at which point the policeman moved in and arrested Simpkin. Why didn’t he intervene earlier?
At Bow Street the little girl was named as Caroline Herbert, aged nine. Today of course she would not be named. She was also described as the prosecutrix which also suggests she had to describe what happened to her in open court, another ordeal that children today are not be exposed to.
In his defence Simpkin said he was fond of children and merely playing with her. He had sent for his friends to provide him with a good character. He was not, he insisted, the sort of man that did that sort of thing. His uncle spoke in his support as we’ve heard and suggested that ‘the conduct of the accused had been misinterpreted, though not wilfully, by the constable and witness’.
Mr Jardine, the Bow Street magistrate, was unconvinced by Simpkin’s defence and that of his uncle. He declared that ‘sins like this were always committed in private, and only discovered by accident’. However, he was also of the opinion that ‘mischief sometimes resulted from sending these cases to be re-investigated at the sessions’ so he was going to deal with it himself.
What did he mean? I wonder if he believed that Simpkin might escape punishment if he stood before a jury of his peers? Perhaps they might believe his claim that he was only ‘playing’ with Caroline because he was ‘naturally fond of children’. It is impossible to know what Mr Jardine thought but we can be sure of what he did. Simpkin was fined £5 but he didn’t have the funds (and neither, presumably, did his uncle). As a result he went to prison for a month.
This seems a light punishment to me and perhaps reflects a reality that sexual exploitation of children in the 1800s was not a big concern for society. That changed a little in 1885 after the Pall Mall Gazette ran its Maiden Tribute report into the scandal of child prostitution. This led to a change in the law and the raising of the age of consent. It did very little else to protect children from predatory paedophiles though.
[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 29, 1852]