‘A gross outrage’ on a young woman reveals the commonplace nature of sexual harassment in London

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Farringdon station under construction in the 1860s

The news feed is still dominated by the Westminster ‘sex pest’ scandal with a growing list of male MPs having to deny, admit or explain their poor behaviour towards female colleagues in the palace or outside. What has emerged is that sexual harassment (from the relatively minor to the extremely serious) is endemic in British politics.

As I discussed last week the Victorians experienced this problem, especially when the new railways began to break down the barriers between the sexes (and classes).  The busy railway carriages of Victorian London provided men with an opportunity to get close to women in ways that were usually denied them. We have seen this replicated in the modern world with attacks on female commuters on the London Underground.

Of course sexual  harassment is not (and was not) confined to the tube or other forms of transport. The Westminster scandal is just the tip of the iceberg; the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey revelations have opened a can of worms in the movie and wider entertainment industry and I fully expect that over the course of the next year or so we are going to see more and more women come forward to complain that they have been assaulted at work or pressured into having unwanted sexual relations by men in positions of power.

This is because we don’t live in an equal society in terms of gender, despite the progress that has been made since the end of the last world war. There needs to be a reckoning and I rather suspect that it is just beginning. But let us return to the nineteenth century and to an incident that was reported, if not in great detail.

Miss Mary Ann Newell was ‘quietly walking along the street’ minding her own business one afternoon in November 1866. Mary Ann was quite close to her lodgings in Northampton Square, Clerkenwell (close to where the London Metropolitan Archives are located today) when a young man came up behind her.

Without warning or introduction he reached around her with his arms and ‘assaulted her in a  very indecent manner’. The newspaper report does not give any more details than this but I think it is quite clear that he must have touched her breasts. Such an action was of course as outrageous then as it would be today. Mary Ann escaped from his grasp and ran home where she told her landlord.

He set off in pursuit of the young man, capturing him a few streets away and taking him to a police station. The next day all three appeared at the Clerkenwell Police Court in front of Mr D’Eyncourt.

The young man, whose name was William Sparrow Cumber was just 16 years of age, and described as a bookbinder. Several of his friends appeared to give him a good character but the offence was proven against him. The magistrate made no comment that was recorded by the reporter but fined him the significant sum of £2 10(about £240 today). Mr D’Eyncourt warned him that if he failed to pay the money he would go to prison in the house of correction for a week at hard labour.

Did this represent ‘justice’ for Mary Ann or an effective deterrent to William and those inclined to behave similarly? I suppose the proof would in what happened next. If this served to let the young bookbinder know that he couldn’t treat women as objects, then a hefty fine (rather than gaol) allowed him to keep his job whilst being effective in protecting women locally. If his mates helped pay his fine and his ruffianism and day in court was considered a ‘badge of honour’ then more young women were likely to fall victim to similar assaults.

Given the deeply gendered nature of Victorian society and the generally subservient position of women in it, and the experience of modern women in a society which is supposedly so much more ‘enlightened’ where equality is concerned, I rather fear Mary Ann was forced to tread much more carefully when she left her home, with more than half an eye on who was behind her from then on.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 07, 1866]

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