Today’s papers are understandably full of discussion about sexual assaults on women by men in positions of power. Following the ongoing revelations about the American film producer Harvey Weinstein and suggestions that such exploitation of women is rife at Westminster , the world seems to be waking up to the reality that casual sexual assault is endemic in our society.
There is nothing new in this (in fact regular readers may be coming to the conclusion that the London Police courts reveal that there is almost nothing new today at all; when it comes to crime and anti-social behaviour our Victorian ancestors were just as ‘bad’ as we are). What may be different today is that the climate has changed and women feel more empowered to speak out – to speak truth to power as the saying goes.
It is not (and never was) easy for a woman to accuse a man of sexually assaulting her. In the nineteenth century a woman that cried ‘rape’ exposed herself to accusations that she was at best lying, and at worst had encouraged the perpetrator by placing herself in a vulnerable position. The Victorian lady that allowed herself to be alone with a male was effectively ‘asking for it’ in much the same way that those accusations are levelled at women who dress ‘provocatively’.
For Victorian society the answer was a separation of the sexes wherever possible. Of course this really meant a separation along class lines. The daughters of the wealthy middle and upper classes were chaperoned and never allowed out on their own. No ‘respectable’ women would be seen out at night without a male companion and so any woman that was on her own, could not, by definition, be ‘respectable’. This led to women being accosted on the street in the evening (and in broad daylight if they were in areas where prosecution was common) by men who thought them ‘fair game’. Much of this went unreported of course, as did most of the assaults on servant girls by fellow domestic staff, or their masters and his sons.
When Victorian society began to develop a system of public transport the boundaries between public and private space began to become mutable. The railway carriage soon became a dangerous place for single or unaccompanied women, seemingly regardless of the time of day or even the other occupants. Today we are familiar with the problems some women face traveling on the London Underground (the ‘tube’) and attempts to get women to report offences. It would seem that from the very introduction of steam driven railways men were subjecting women to unwelcome sexual harassment.
Hobart Moore was one of these so-called ‘sex pests’. In October 1877 Mary Ann Cocks, a young governess, was travelling in a second-class carriage on the Great Eastern railway from Liverpool Street to Stratford. It was just after 8 o’clock in the evening and so Mary Ann was probably on her way home after a day out.
Moore entered the same compartment and sat down directly opposite her. There were three others in the car, a man and two ladies. Moore asked Mary Ann if the train went to Forest Gate, and she replied that it did. He had established conversation.
As the train left Bethnal Green nation Mary Ann noticed that Moore ‘shuffled about a great deal with his feet, and between Bethnal Green and Old Ford stations he leaned down and touched her’.
Clearly shocked by his behaviour, Mary Ann asked him move. One of the other women in the carriage then suggested they swop seats and the school governess gladly accepted the offer. Then the other man in the carriage then helped her move to another carriage when the train stopped. She had escaped the ‘pest’ but had still suffered form the unwanted contact with him.
This is a Victorian news report so it gives nothing in terms of detail about how or where Moore touched Mary Ann. But she considered that she ‘had been insulted’ and the gentleman that had assisted her now fetched a porter so she could make a formal complaint about Moore. The porter now rode in Moore’s carriage and handed him over to a policeman when they disembarked at the next stop.
Moore must have known what he had done and the embarrassing consequences should he be called to appear in a public court to answer the charges. He now compounded his crime by attempting to bribe his way our of the situation. He pressed a half sovereign into PC 79K’s hand and asked him to forget all about it. The constable did no such thing of course and so Moore found himself before the Police court magistrate at Worship Street in the East End.
In court Moore’s lawyer, a Mr Willis, explained that his client held a ‘highly respectable position’ in society and had ‘recently married’. Ms Cocks must have been mistaken in what she alleged he argued. His client had been out to dinner and had eaten and drunk too much.
As a result he was ‘sick, and leaned from the window. While ill in that way his foot or leg might have done all that the prosecutrix had said, but he denied the hand or any intention to insult’.
Mr Hannay, the magistrate, said that on balance the evidence suggested that there was a case to answer and so committed Moore to jury trial at the Middlesex Sessions. The Digital Panopticon has a record of a 28 year-old Hobart Robert Moore being in prison in 1879, although (and thanks to ActonBooks for the information on this) this wasn’t because he was convicted of the assault on the governess. Instead it seems that he pleaded guilty at the sessions to a common assault and was fined. Two years later he was sent to prison for stealing money from his employer, allegedly to feed his gambling habit (Cheltenham Mercury, Saturday 6 September 1879).
We have yet to see whether any of the current revelations in America or Britain result in prison sentences for those accused of sexually assaulting vulnerable women. I’m not holding my breath however.
[from The Standard, Tuesday, October 30, 1877]