All this week at my university we are running a series of events designed at raising awareness of issues surrounding sexual assault, harassment and consent. It is the third year running such activities have happened and this time I’m pleased to be aligning my second year teaching with it, by giving special lecture and linked seminar workshop on the prosecution of rape in the 18th and 19th centuries.
One of the issues that any study of sexual assault in the past (and indeed the present) highlights is the difficulty survivors have in bringing their abusers to court and gaining any sort of justice. This remains an extremely difficult thing to do today and Time Magazine’s collective award of their Person of the Year 2017 to the ‘silence braekers’ reflects the courage of the women and men who have come forward to speak out.
Sexual assault and harassment takes many forms of course. Take this case for example, from December 1864. Amelia Harrison, a married woman who lived in Nelson Street, Bromley, was crossing the fields near her home at 10 at night when she was attacked.
A young lad rushed up to her from behind, raised her skirts and grabbed her ‘in a grossly indecent manner’. In the witness box at Thames Police Court Mrs Harrison was naturally reticent to go into much detail but Mr Paget pressed her. Reluctantly she ‘described the infamous outrage committed upon her , and said the prisoner hurt her’. She then told the court she was five months pregnant.
We don’t know exactly what happened but clearly some form of sexual assault had been committed. The lad in the dock, a ‘rough-looking boy’ named George Thomas wasn’t yet 15 years of age and cut a sorry figure. At first he denied doing anything and counter claimed saying Mrs Harrison had hit him and cut his lip.
He may have sustained an injury but it was soon clear that it must have come as result of her resistance to his assault. Given the prisoner’s detail and the seriousness of the charge Mr Paget said he would have to formally commit him to a jury trial at the Sessions.
At this Thomas broke down and started to sob. He called for his mother, admitted his crime, and ‘begged forgiveness’. The magistrate paused and consulted with his chief clerk. He was minded, he said, to send Thomas for trial but decided in the end to punish him summarily. The prisoner was ‘a grossly profligate young blackguard’, he said, ‘and must be punished for laying his hands on a woman so indecently’. He would go to prison for two months at hard labour.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 07, 1864}