Stagg & Mantle’s store on Leicester Square
One of the things that fascinates me whilst reading the reports of the Victorian police courts is the changing use of language, especially slang. Language is always evolving of course; one only needs to spend time around young people to see how they create new words and adapt old ones. Slang (like underworld cant or Cockney rhyming slang) effectively excludes those that don’t understand it and allows conversions to occur in the hearing of those we’d rather didn’t understand what we were saying.
However when we look back into history to read about the people from the past through their own words the changing use and definition of words can be quite confusing. For example ‘gay’ which has changed its meaning considerably over the centuries. Now it almost universally refers to homosexuality but this probably only dates back to the 1930s, and only to men (and possibly only in the US). For most of the twentieth century in Britain it means happy, cheerful and it still is used like that.
In the late 1850s (a period of concern about sexual health following revelations about the disastrous state of British troops in the Crimean War) ‘gay’ was a slang term for female prostitution (as seen in a famous cartoon from the time – shown on the left).
Another family word today is ‘bully’ which I think we would all understand to mean someone who uses their strength or position of power to intimate or exploit someone else. Bullying is rightly at the top of school and work agendas as something that needs to be dealt with and that vulnerable people should be protected from.
So would you be surprised to discover that in the 1800s (and indeed earlier) ‘bully’ was a slang term for a protector? It seems strange until we unpack it a little more and find that ‘a bully’ in Victorian terminology meant a prostitute’s protector, or in modern language, her ‘pimp’. Victorian bullies profited from the money made by street prostitutes and ‘protected’ them from other bullies or competitors for their territory.
Once you know that this report from the mid 1870s makes more sense.
Detective Leader of C Division (Metropolitan Police) was standing at the corner of Leicester Square watching a crowd of people outside Stagg and Mantle’s department store. Some of the more fashionable London streets attracted prostitutes and thieves and the police often watched for well-known or suspicious characters to catch them in the act of committing crime. Detective Leader was in plain clothes and looked like an ordinary member of the public.
Looking across Leader suddenly noticed a man, possibly drunk, wade into the crowd and start an altercation with a small group of women. He quickly intervened to separate them only to find that the man seized him by the collar and then declared that he was under arrest. The man, who was a recently discharged soldier named William Corrington, told the policeman that he (the soldier) was a detective and that he was arresting him (the actual detective) and would take him to the nearest police station. His explanation was that Leader was a ‘bully’ and so he must have believed he was trying to protect the women from the former solider.
The detective tried to explain that the man was mistaken; he was the copper and he had been watching these women, but Corrington was too drunk to understand. A nearby uniformed officer saw what was happening and came to his colleague’s assistance and the man stood aside. But this was only temporary, when he saw that the detective wasn’t going anyway the ex-army man lurched forward again declaring:
‘You are loitering here again, and I shall take you to the station’.
Since Corrington could not or would not see sense, Leader and PC Harding (28C reserve) hauled him off to the nick and he was presented before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street in the morning on a charge of ‘annoying’ the detective in the course of executing his duty. The magistrate fined him 20s (or 14 days imprisonment if he couldn’t pay).
Poor Corrington. He’d been discharged from the army only a few days earlier, we don’t know why. He was clearly drunk but possibly suffering in other ways. Prostitutes were exploited themselves of course, but they also preyed on drunk men and maybe William had fallen victim and had had his pocket pinched in the past. It is often remarked that the police (in plain clothes) can look remarkably similar to the criminals they are pursuing so maybe this was an honest mistake. This story does tell us as well, that the West End of London was considered a ripe spot for petty crime and vice in the 1870s, and little has changed there today.
[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 09, 1875]
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