A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society, by Edwin Landseer (1838)
Madame Courtney was a ‘foreign’ (probably French) dressmaker who ‘spoke English very badly’. Just after Christmas 1859 a woman called at her house to ask her to make a ‘very handsome’ dress for her. She returned a week later to try the dress on for size and said she should like to keep it on and send the money at a later date.
The dressmaker was unhappy about this because she knew the customer, Mrs Emily White, as someone who had not settled all of her outstanding debts, so she refused. Instead she suggested that Mrs White either paid for the dress or left the dress she had arrived in as security.
This upset Mrs White who flew into a rage. According to Madame Courtney White then ‘struck her several times, and the seizing a pair of scissors, [and] demolished her own new dress’.
As a result both Mrs White and her dressmaker appeared in court at Westminster in front of the magistrate, Mr Dayman. The dress in question was produced:
‘It was chequered with incisions as the costume of any harlequin, the pieces being held together merely by the lining’.
The whole exchange caused much amusement in the court and this continued as Mrs White’s defence counsel (Mr Lewis) offered an alternative explanation for the state of the garment. He cross -examined the dressmaker to establish that she employed several ‘workmen’ and owned a large Newfoundland dog. Newfoundlands were very popular in the Victorian period, as much as Labradors are today it seems, but they are massive animals. Madame Courtney confirmed that this was true and admitted that her ladies had rushed to her aid. However, she said this had prompted Mrs White to seize a nearby poker and threaten to ‘split all their heads open’.
Mr Lewis now claimed that while all this distraction was going on the dog, ‘amused himself by eating up Mrs White’s shawl, which cost 20 guineas’. His client refused to pay for the dress because it did not fit, and had since been ‘shamelessly imprisoned for four hours’ and her own dress had not been returned to her. After she had cut off the new dress (which she said she was perfectly entitled to do) she sat in her underwear while the huge dog ‘growled at her display of uncovered crinoline’. Finally she said that she had since paid the dressmaker for the work she had done.
The case had become pure farce and I imagine the magistrate was becoming increasingly frustrated at the deteriorating decorum of his courtroom. He grumbled that while women were the ‘weaker sex’ they definitely ‘were not the “gentler” sex when aroused’. He dismissed the complaint from Madame Courtney and suggested that if she wanted to pursue a claim for non payment or damage to the dress she would have to take it to the county court. She had no right to detain Mrs White and therefore she also had the right to sue the French woman for false imprisonment and the value of her shawl.
Then, much to his relief, both women left the Westminster court room.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 04, 1860]